Authors: Diego Rodriguez
Campanile Monastery, Florence, 1497
imone Di Benedetto, abbot of the monastery, lay down on the floor at the foot of his bed. Something was worrying him. Although it had been a rather peaceful day, his mind would not stop racing. For weeks he had been suffering from terrible nightmares; he had scarcely eaten and barely slept. Anyway, that did not matter now; the most important thing had been to get it out of harm’s way, and he had certainly done that.
Over the last few weeks, he had worked slavishly on unfathomable mysteries, secret codes and cryptographic methods to protect what had been entrusted to him so many years ago and had been responsible for so many deaths throughout history. He had thought about it carefully and was prepared to die if that would prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.
As the current Grand Master, he had seen his predecessors pass away, many of them great men who dedicated their lives to the order, whose only reward was knowing that what they were doing was right. His mind would not entertain the thought of failing, even less so after the faith they had placed in him. Nothing in the world would make him disappoint them.
Anybody walking the corridors that night would have picked up on that sinister and alarming silence. It enveloped the atmosphere little by little and penetrated deep into the bowels of the monastery, making the place feel almost like a cemetery at dusk - feeling that was not even disguised by the smell of incense from vespers, saturating the air with that human touch it so desperately needed. The whole community was sleeping in their quarters, except for two lookouts who watched over the grounds from the tallest tower, waiting for some suspicious sign. Several weeks before, Simone had decided to set up a surveillance system to pick up on any unusual occurrence on the outskirts of the cloister, even at an ungodly hour.
Suddenly, something startled him. He could clearly hear panting coming from the other side of the door. It was rapid and slightly labored, as if the person on the other side had been running. Finally, someone walked up the last few steps which led to the abbot’s quarters.
The time is now. The great day has come,
he thought, sweeping his graying hair from his face and looking at the crucifix which hung on one of the walls. Then he made the sign of the cross and prayed for courage and strength.
“Sir! Sir!” cried the monk, his voice trembling as he rapped on the door. “They are here!”
The Grand Master stood up as quickly as his old legs would allow and, although he knew what was about to happen, he felt calm. The last few weeks had been extremely stressful and difficult, but there was nothing more to fear. Everything had been neatly tied up and they would never get what they so longed for. “Let them through! Stay out of their way or it will be the end for you all. They are servants of the devil, with no hearts or scruples. Do you not see that they fail to understand rules or laws?”
“Sir, it is late. They have killed the two monks who were on the night rounds and are making their way to your quarters. We must flee!”
“No!” he declared firmly as he walked over to one of the bookcases on the opposite side of the room. “It is my destiny and I must see it through.”
“But Sir… they are going to kill you!”
The abbot seemed oblivious to the pleas of the young monk who followed his sorrowful steps across the room. Finally, he found what he was looking for in the bulkiest bookcase, hidden among the crowd of dusty books on the fifth shelf. It was an old, handwritten book whose cover image was surprising, to say the least: it was a golden triangle.
“I must ask of you one last favor” said Simone, this time with sadness in his voice. “You must flee with this book until you find a safe place for it. It is the last vestige of an ancient secret which has been passed down from generation to generation over millennia. What lies within is of extreme importance, so important that it will save the world from destruction in the very near future. Guard it as if your life depended on it.”
Immediately afterwards he took another book from the top shelf, causing an eerie grinding sound which echoed throughout the room. The monk turned pale upon seeing how the gigantic portrait of Pope Alexander VI moved to one side, revealing a gloomy stone passage with hundreds of steps leading into darkness. The steps were relatively unworn, as if very few people had trodden on them. The entrance was flanked by two candelabras next to an old dish filled with oil.
“Quick! Escape through here. This passage will take you outside the cloister - do not stop for anything or anybody. By the way,” the abbot hesitated for a few seconds, then handed him a bag with coins. “Take this. With this you will have enough to see you through a few years, until their anger dissipates. I have taken the liberty of erasing your name from the records; there is nothing which links you to us. You will live in the small house next to the river - it was monastery property and now belongs to you. There you will find detailed information about what you will have to do, how you must behave, and who you will be able to trust.”
In a state of disbelief at everything which was happening that night, the young man accepted the task which was assigned to him without hesitation, and he determinedly stepped into the passage. In one last vain attempt to persuade Simone otherwise, his eyes desperately searched for those of his superior, but everything was decided. Alexander VI was coming between them.
The click of the painting as the frame sealed against the wall plunged the room into an eerie silence, until a sudden current of air from outside blew softly on Simone’s back, making every last hair on his body stand on end. With tears in his eyes, he slowly walked back over to the crucifix. Before lying down to pray again, he took out an old, crumpled and disintegrating piece of paper whose top part bore an image which had been worn down with the passage of time, but one which he recognized perfectly.
We will see each other again soon… my dear.
A few seconds or perhaps minutes later a loud, powerful and sinister voice broke the silence. “Praying will not help you now, Simone, or should I say
. I have finally found it. You are the only one left; you are the only guardian and bearer; you will be the person who gives me the most powerful weapon ever known to man. Tell me where it is!”
The old man turned around and looked up, keeping his eyes locked on those of the assailant, and he answered him, trying not to stutter in fear. “I do not know that of which you speak!”
The monastery was under siege. There were around a hundred horsemen in the vicinity, wielding powerful swords which yearned to taste the red liquid which would restore them to life; they wore light steel armor which foretold victory long before the fighting had even begun; they were under the command of a cruel man said to be the son of the devil himself. They had killed any monk who had gotten in their way, regardless of their age. Only a few fortunate ones had managed to escape with their lives to the chapter house, where they had locked themselves in silence in the hope that their tormentors, who were spread in every corner of the monastery, from the abbot’s quarters to the refectory, would overlook their presence and leave them alone, as fast as they had attacked the grounds.
The orchestrator of the massacre was a young man, although his long dirty hair, rotting teeth and revolting body odor made him seem much older than his years. With his right arm he brandished a huge sword covered with blood, and with his left a small, recently-used knife, the tip of which still dripped blood. The severity of his expression made clear his intention of using it again if he deemed it necessary. He walked slowly towards the room as he scraped his long, sharp nails along the wall, keeping his eyes locked on his target. The thing that his ancestors had desperately desired for so long was finally close.
“Give it to me old man, or I shall kill every living soul in this monastery!”
In an act of bravery, the abbot approached him firmly, summoning all the strength he could muster. “I repeat, I do not know that of which you speak. I am merely an old man who has dedicated his whole life to serving God. I have lived in this monastery since I was born and never have I heard that we were hiding something behind its walls. Search all you will and take all you wish, but leave us alone. You have already sullied the house of the Lord enough for one day.”
“You are lying!” he shouted, striking the shelves with his muscular arms.
A small scream, thinly muffled, could simultaneously be heard from the other side of the adjacent picture. It was the young monk. He had become frightened and desperately tried to cover his mouth with his hands, but the cry had escaped and reached the ears of the killer. There was silence - encouraging for the assailant, devastating for the monk.
When the mechanism had finished locking itself behind the young man and his eyes had grown used to the darkness, he found that the joints between frame and the wall were not well finished. Light filtered through the cracks, partially lighting the way. Curiosity got the better of him and in an act of rebellion he decided to see what was about to happen, curled up in the uneasy but protective darkness in which he felt safe. When the killer struck the shelves, he saw his terrifying face a few inches away and he could not suppress the scream which would ultimately betray him.
“There is somebody behind the picture! Quick, imbeciles, pull it down!” he shouted to his vassals, who were already searching for something big enough to prize it off. “Old man! Who is behind it? I can smell their fear.”
“You are blinded by stupidity. Can you not see that it is only a portrait of our Supreme Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ, Alexander VI?”
Not even the Master himself believed what he had just said, but he was certain that it would buy him some more time to escape. However, things did not go as the abbot expected. Three of the lackeys did not pay any attention to the insult and they destroyed the picture with their swords.
I must do something or these monsters will capture him. The book is in danger.
Without warning, Simone hurled himself at the three warriors who were trying to destroy the picture. His cries and curses startled them and, upon seeing him pounce at them, they drew their swords, plunging them into his body. Two of them tore through his heart and the third pierced his right lung. His body, unable to support itself, fell to its knees while his wounds endlessly oozed blood. His life was ebbing away from him.
“Nooooo, fools! I will kill you!”
The young assailant violently shook Simone’s entire body, hitting and screaming at him endlessly, demanding from him explanations without any kind of compassion. Yet from his mouth came only a faint whisper: “Keep it safe, Lord”.
After seeing what had happened, the young assailant lost his mind. His henchmen had killed the last Grand Master of the order and his secret would die with him. An anguished howl full of rage echoed through all the rooms in the monastery. He had been so very close to achieving what he had been seeking for so long, and not even the sound of the frame giving way and falling to the floor could hearten him.
It was too late. The monk had escaped and in one of his pockets, wrapped in a worn cloth, was a book. The book which had cost so many lives that night.
Florence, present day
he full moon shone on the gloomy landscape which surrounded that old house, located in a clearing in a forest on the outskirts of Florence. Nothing could be heard, except for a couple of barn owls streaking across the starry sky from one side to another, as if they were shooting stars. Outside it was extremely cold, which was somewhat unusual for that time of year. The window looked out onto an inhospitable landscape, covered with frost brought on by the oncoming chill.
Back inside the building, a sudden blast of heat was trying to force its way through to any corner it could find. At last, someone had lit the old roaring boiler and it had been heating up the house for over two hours straight, giving it a warmth which it had lacked for some years.
It was two o’clock in the morning and James Oldrich still hadn’t managed to get to sleep. To say that his idea of a quiet relaxing weekend wasn’t going well would be an understatement.
Maybe he was overcome with emotion. He had just been named president of one of the most prestigious universities in the world, although that was no reason for his rational mind to become muddled, not even for a second. Not even the long years during which he had studied History and History of Art, nor the subsequent Master’s degrees he had undertaken had succeeded in robbing him of even a couple of hours’ sleep. Despite this, he was now lying awake in an old fifteenth-century oak bed, stifled by the three woolen blankets he had thrown on top in order to keep out the least bit of cold, unable to drift off.
After being selected as the new president of Columbia University, James had decided to take a few days’ sabbatical, during which he had hoped to completely disconnect from work so that he could return feeling recharged and more motivated than ever. He was anxious to make the university one of the most important in the world, restoring the prestige and renown which it had some time ago, but had unfortunately lost over the years. He had grand ideas in mind and wanted to implement them as soon as possible.