The God Thieves

Issue #84

Mateo del Monte Feltro was with his young daughter Luciana, praying to the god who would not fight, when an intelligence agent from the Bank of Saint George entered his house. After the fever took his wife and sons, Mateo had converted the west room into a chapel to the emaciated god nailed to the cross. Icons and amulets to other gods, he disposed of with respect. Though the gods who fought were unreasoning, the superstition that he might offend them was ingrained.

The agent was followed by two others and Vicenzo Selvaggi, Chief of Staff to the Master of the Intelligence Guild. Mateo removed his cap. Signor Selvaggi was an ascetic prodigy of magic, surgery, theo-taxonomy and theo-ecology. The Guild did not risk his genius on missions, and Mateo did not think him to be in the habit of visiting damaged operatives. Agents whispered that Signor Selvaggi put strange things into his skull, giving him access to magics and esoteric insights unmatched by other augments. The latest rumor, for what it was worth, alleged that he carried a pair of fetal gryphon brains in his skull. Monstrous.

Luciana hid behind Mateo. He rested a gentle hand against her cheek.

“Don Mateo,” Signor Selvaggi said, with a voice as light as a castrati’s. “I am returning you to active status.”

“The board said I would not be recalled until my injuries had healed.”

“I am not so convinced as your surgeons that your…spiritual injuries prevent you from serving Genoa,” Signor Selvaggi said. “A man who follows two paths arrives nowhere.”

“My following the Christ does not interfere with my service to the Bank and Genoa. The Christ may have something to teach us.”

“Christ exists, but no engine will make him do anything useful.”

“His powers may be subtle,” Mateo said.

“Our strategic military needs are not. Venice has acquired a new theo-military asset. It is from the first circle.”

Mateo’s hands felt cold. He exhaled slowly, years of training keeping expression from his face, movement from his stance.

“I cannot give you the details here,” Signor Selvaggi said. “Come to the Bank.”

Mateo’s stomach hollowed. First-circle. Probably every available operative was being recalled, no matter their condition.

He knelt and put a hand on Luciana’s shoulder. Aging spies at least were the best liars. What tore at his innards never sounded in his voice.

“I must go for a trip, Luciana. I may be some time, but I will bring you back a present.”

“You don’t need to bring me a present, papa. You can stay if you want.” He saw her trying to be brave, but tears collected at the edges of her eyes.

He hugged her and felt her hands make little fists around the sides of his shirt. He let her go, replaced his smile, and gently freed his shirt from her fingers. He could not look at her anymore without putting himself further under Signor Selvaggi’s thumb. He rose and threw a tabard over his doublet and followed Signor Selvaggi into sun-stained, puddled streets.

Venice outpaced Genoa in the maritime trade with the Levant and Constantinople, but Genoa controlled the movement of capital and credit with the Bank of Saint George. Neither held an upper hand militarily. Where the Venetians could scour the Levant and Mediterranean for new gods to harness, the vast wealth of Genoa could attract knowledge of divine weapons from as far away as China, India, and beyond the Sahara. A perilous balance. Much running but no movement. A new first-circle asset changed everything. It would leave Genoa a smoking ruin.

The Bank of Saint George came into view, a massive structure of brick and column work, a solid block of competence and wealth. They entered, passing layers of well-paid Mantuan condottieri with cross-bows and swords. At the lowest sub-basement, beneath even the vaults, two dour-faced Bank of Saint George marines met them before a high wooden door and a man-sized set of bronze scales, based on Egyptian magic.

The marines saluted, examined Mateo’s license to carry an augment, and motioned him onto the Anubis scale. Mateo stepped onto one of the pans. It thumped against the wool padding beneath. On the other one, the marine set a luminescent feather of copper. He switched one feather for another from a collection of them in a blue velvet case until Mateo balanced against two copper feathers. Mateo weighed two souls. The marine saluted and repeated the process with Signor Selvaggi. The Anubis scale balanced with three feathers. It was true! Monstrous.

Past the door, Signor Selvaggi led Mateo a short distance to a curtain of light stretching across the corridor. Mateo had only been this deep into the Bank on three other occasions, none of them pleasant. He stepped through the barrier into stomach-tipping eeriness. They were no longer in Genoa, or anywhere within the celestial spheres. Light traveled poorly here. Guttering lamps were blots of light without reference to the world.

They walked past laboratories with furnaces, crucibles and flasks, and others where strange expiring animals were kept. In a large office, Signor Selvaggi indicated a table flanked by two antique chairs festooned with Greek-styled icons: Juno, Ceres, Christ, Poseidon, Vulcan. Surely taken in the sack of Constantinople, when the fourth crusade had turned the mindless goddess Freya on Genoa’s allies. A trophy of cunning.

Mateo sat gingerly. Behind the desk, eight inches of glass protected the room from the sanguine haze beyond— the slowly thumping heart of a god. The Guild’s alchemists and philosophers were not only capable of implanting the brains of beasts into the skulls of men, but they’d co-opted the humoral immunity of a god and planted their headquarters inside its invulnerable body.

Geniuses or parasites. Cunning.

“What is the mission, Signor?”

“The Venetians have unearthed ancient texts about an Assyrian god called Enlil,” Signor Selvaggi said. “From the first circle. Fully weaponizable. They are constructing an Enlil engine. You will steal the plans. They are being kept below the chambers of the Council of Ten in Venice.”

“But how? No one has ever penetrated the Armory of Venice,” Mateo said. There was no more secure place in the world, except for the Bank of Saint George.

“Not with normal magics,” Signor Selvaggi said.

Despite himself, Mateo leaned forward.

So did Signor Selvaggi. “I have a dragon augment for you, Don Mateo.”

Mateo sat back abruptly. “Not possible.”

An augment’s brain had to fit inside a man’s skull. Wyverns and basilisks had small brains. Despite this, they still had to be so lobotomized that nearly nothing of their personality was left to run the magic that operatives needed for espionage. A dragon’s brain was as large as a pony’s.

“I’ve cut everything from it,” Selvaggi whispered. “Appetite. Humoral systems. Motor nerves. Taste and smell centers. All that remain are the mapping cortex, the processing lobe, and the seat of the soul.” Mateo must have looked doubtful. Selvaggi leaned closer. “There’s more. It’s a hatchling. A twelfth the size of an adult.” He quivered with excitement.

“How? Did you take it by force?”

Esoteric beasts were dangerous, even as disembodied brains. Mateo wouldn’t want to be trapped in his own skull with one that didn’t want to be there. The Intelligence Guild usually acquired brains from ancient beasts willing to sacrifice the flesh to hide from mortality.

“This is no normal dragon,” Selvaggi said. “It had been abandoned. Its egg had cracked. A mold infected it. Covered its scales.”

Mateo pitied the creature abandoned by parents. He couldn’t bear the thought of his own daughter possibly becoming an orphan.

“The power of this augment is like nothing we have ever seen,” Selvaggi said. “It comes from the land of the Mongols, through the Portuguese. It knows all our magics and the magics of the Mongols.”

“It won’t prevent the Venetians from putting an arrow in me, or something worse,” Mateo countered, “before I get anywhere near the Armory.”

“The Intelligence Guild is not a safe trade at any time, but the cunning agent can exploit his advantages.”

“Why me? There are better agents.”

Selvaggi snorted. “Younger perhaps, but you are far more experienced. And only you have been able to unleash the full power of an augment.”

“I’m not the same man I was, Signor. I don’t know if my soul can do it anymore.”

Selvaggi’s face stiffened. “I will be frank with you, Don Mateo. I don’t care about your soul. If this is about your Christ, you’d best make some decisions. We don’t have anyone else to send in. I don’t think anyone else could handle a dragon augment. So either Don Mateo takes the assignment, or Genoa is leveled.”

Mateo’s mouth dried. “Signor Selvaggi, there is no way to survive this mission.”

“You will see,” Selvaggi said. “This augment is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. An Apollo burst is a trifle for him. He can change your shape. His brain is not just one brain. His consciousness rides a series of small brains. He can decipher codes in moments. He can emit epiphany pulses under field conditions.”

Mateo hid his astonishment with effort. This was too much power. “I still cannot enter the Palazzo Ducale,” he said. “The Venetians can use an Anubis scale as well as we can.”

“Hatchlings have small souls. The souls do not acquire the experience they need for growth for some time.” Selvaggi smiled. “And what I did to its brain, I’ve done to its soul.”

“You lobotomized a soul?” Mateo asked in horror.

“Parts of the soul are required; others are not,” Selvaggi said, waving a hand. “The remains of its soul weigh almost nothing. And I know what to cut from yours.”

“Mine?”

“I will trim small parts of it. With the dragon brain in your skull, you’ll weigh only one soul, the same as a normal man. The Anubis scales can blow in the wind for all that they will detect your augment and its magic!”

Mateo rose, retreating. “I have offered my life to Genoa, over and over. But my soul comes from God!”

Selvaggi stabbed a finger at him. “Your soul exists to wield augments to fight the enemies of Genoa. Decide your loyalties now, Don Mateo.”

The breath in him was thin and insufficient, and no more would come. In his mind, the emaciated god on his cross stood on one pan of the scales and all of Genoa on the other. Luciana on the other.

“Genoa, of course,” he said hoarsely.

Mateo dreamed of overwhelming power, and of hell. Power washed heavy over his hands. Men harnessed power by joining themselves to mutilated monsters. Proud monsters became tools, like hammers with souls. Men prodded alight the power of insensate gods, through fires poked into other planes. Genoa stole the secrets of domesticating the gods from the Venetians. The Venetians stole from Genoa. Always chasing. Always fleeing. Always hunting up new gods with which to destroy each other.

The night, months ago, when he had emptied his augment, they had run him to ground in a fig orchard between Venice and Milan. Forty of them. Condotierri. Fusiliers. Augmented operatives of the Venetian secret police. Pinned him with arquebus fire and lightning.

Desperate, flailing, Mateo snapped something in his augment, unleashing all the magic it would ever have, in that one moment. Light scoured the orchard, flaying bark from trees. It was a special kind of magic, the kind that peeled the world like an apple, exposing a place beneath it where numb gods hungered for souls. And the gods feasted that night. The forty faces haunted him always. Gods gnawed at them still, because Mateo served the gods who fought.

You shall have no other gods before me.

Mateo woke. Moonlight shone through his window. He slid to smooth wood and crawled to the corner. He prayed to the god who would not fight but who could reach the forty men Mateo had put in hell. The dragon brain, so newly in his skull, was silent.

“Our Father, Who art in Heaven....”

Mateo arrived in Venice, ironically enough, on a papal ship carrying a nuncio seeking military aid. The beefy French cardinal was happy enough to take Genoese gold to hide a false priest on board. Mateo spent his days watching the restive horizon.

Batu, the new augment locked in Mateo’s skull, was a tireless, if odd, conversationalist. Despite multiple lobotomies, he possessed remarkable identity and will. Perhaps this was the way with dragons.

Batu talked of dragonhood, of how dragons were raised on stories, even in the egg, and how father dragons protected the young after hatching and taught them to forage and hunt in the forests until they could rise into the sky to feed on the things that live in the ether. Batu spoke without a hint of blame in his tone, even though no father had wanted him.

The idea of Batu never growing to feed on those alien things in the ether seemed to Mateo to be the saddest of things. He tried to hide the feelings from Batu, but the rummaging little brain was tireless and snuffled out everything he wanted among Mateo’s thoughts. Despite Batu’s youth, he seemed to understand his host. Mateo’s grief seemed to inspire some sympathy in the little dragon. Nor did Batu belittle Mateo’s god. The Mongols followed only one god.

Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the Earth.

Blessed are those who mourn; for they shall be comforted.

‘Don Mateo, mood: darkening?’

Yes, Mateo thought hesitantly, as the low city of Venice emerged behind a thicket of masts.

‘Discipline, theology, concept afterlife reward: not testable,’ Batu pressed.

Mateo felt a sudden urge to protect this orphaned thing. Batu was childlike, lacking the nuance and faith of wisdom. Like Luciana.

Not testable, Mateo thought, is not the same as untrue.

‘Discipline, epistemology, concept rational method: work of gods measurable by heat or by product of force and distance,’ Batu said. ‘Product of distance and force applied by Christ equals zero.’

Christ does not give power, Mateo thought. The beasts we harness like pack animals are not true gods. They are sources of power, like lamp oil. They lack agency. They are chaos given hunger. Christ is here to save us. To forgive us.

Batu’s odd voice burbled but did not address Mateo anymore.

Mateo disembarked, moving past port officials to mix into the press of traders, fishmongers and shore crew. Batu had never seen a city in daytime. Had never, in fact, seen anything. Until the vivisection that had put his brain in Mateo’s skull, Batu had lived a sickly life in a crate. He chattered endlessly, anxious for Mateo’s safety, everything framed in the stuttering taxonomic perceptions of dragons. Mateo soothed him as he would a child.

Mateo walked over bridges and narrow cobbled streets to a quarter where houses crumbled among high weeds. Even squatters avoided this area. Batu’s interrogative throbbed.

Pestilence emptied this quarter, Mateo answered in his thoughts. People fear lingering ghosts, making it the perfect place for an equipment and information drop.

Mateo stepped over brambles to a high chicken coop. Caked dust powdered the slatted door. Around him were nothing but crickets and bees. He stepped into the gloom.

Give me night lenses, he thought.

Batu filmed Mateo’s eyes with a membrane that colored the shadows bright purple. The low sun shining through gaps in the walls brightened painfully.

Cut night lenses, Mateo thought after a moment. Smell for magical fields and listening engines.

The purple dissolved and then became a sea of spots, showing ambient magic in faint yellow splotches. Over the door frame, brightly outlined, a beetle walked. A listening engine. Either the drop was compromised or this was one of the ubiquitous listening engines patrolling the city. They were domesticated from wild Egyptian scarabs and bred for souls large enough to power magical observations and transmitting visions. They sent the crude arrangements of fragmented color in the moment by Helios link, that tenuous, invisible light, but the beetle souls were small. Their visions needed to be re-emitted through a nearby Apollo junction.

Mateo had used only passive magic so far and likely hadn’t triggered the engine, but he had to risk magic now to fetch his equipment. Time to see if his augment was as good as Selvaggi had promised.

Batu, Mateo thought, emit an epiphany pulse, low range.

Magic based on Apollo’s power was logical, straight, following the tenets of Euclid. Its natural antagonist was the chaotic epiphany magic of Bacchus.

Brief, dizzy wildness confused Mateo.

Batu droned. ‘Observation: sub-visual burst at twenty-five degrees, elevation forty-five degrees, range, six yards.’

The junction was dead. The scarab transmitted, but no one was receiving. No one would suspect an enemy operative. An epiphany pulse was not magic that was performed under field conditions.

Mateo lifted a flat floor-stone. In a hollow were an oiled sack and a well-made sword. The bag contained a nobleman’s hose, tabard and surcoat. At the bottom of the bag was a stone bottle stoppered with gray wax.

Aletheia waters.

The river Lethe flowed deep underground, taking memories from those who drank of it. The knowledge drained into Aletheia, a deeper river of truth. The waters of the Lethe and the Aletheia were critical espionage and interrogation tools. Mateo cut the wax away and drank.

Disorientation. He choked.

Francesco Polani. He was Francesco Polani. Officer of the Guard of the Council of Ten. Sent to Mantua to negotiate a military contract with the condottieri lords. Ambushed there by Genoese spies. Forced to drink the waters of Lethe.

Mateo shuddered. Horrible fate. To forget everything. Did Mateo now carry Francesco’s sins? He remembered them all.

Batu, Mateo thought, change my face to match Francesco’s.

The bones under his cheeks widened. Skin tightened. Jaw receded. Not painful. Disturbing.

Mateo put on the clothes and emerged from the shack. He crossed back over bridges, winding through crowded markets to the Palazzo Ducale. Here were the ineffective senate, the fiction of the Council of Ten and the Doge, and the reality of the Council of Three and their secret police.

A pang bit his heart at the sight of the Temple of Odin beside the Palazzo. The onion domes, gilded Byzantine mosaics, and soaring arches were once the Christian Basilica di San Marco, but like Christ Himself, His saints had never intervened in the affairs of men. While some faithful, like Mateo, sought the wisdom and grace of Christ, more pragmatic minds had remodeled the Church of Gold into an altar to Odin.

In his disguise, Mateo passed under the arches of the Palazzo to the inner courtyard. A guard at the doorway saluted him and opened the door onto a receiving chamber for Palazzo’s Armory. The stained glass images of Roman gods near the high ceiling attenuated the thin light of day. Wall-mounted lamps and candles pooled warm light. Mateo stepped in, the first Genoese spy ever to enter the headquarters of Venice’s infamous espionage service.

Batu, keep your magic closed and tight. Give them nothing to smell. Venice’s secret police would have as many supernatural listeners, watchers, and sniffers as Genoa’s Intelligence Guild.

A tall Anubis scale stood against the far wall, near a wide door leading into the depths of the Armory. An old officer seated at a table beckoned him to approach. The door closed behind him.

“Name and business, signor?”

“Francesco Polani. Lieutenant of the Guard of the Council of Ten. I am returned from a foreign mission.”

The officer laboriously wrote out the name. He shuffled through older pages silently, searching. Mateo’s back sweated. Finally, the officer signaled a young sergeant in blue Council livery.

“Weigh the signor,” he ordered.

The sergeant led Mateo to the Anubis scale with its shining, gold-plated chains. Mateo stepped onto one scale. Another liveried man, a proud corporal with pox scars on his face, removed a silk coverlet from a shelf, revealing a set of copper feathers. He lifted one and placed it on the scale.

He frowned.

Mateo was heavier than the feather weighing one soul.

The sergeant’s posture hardened and his feet edged apart slightly. Mateo forced himself to look curious. The dragon brain in his skull felt like a furnace behind his eyes. The officer removed the feather and placed the next one, weighing eleven tens of a soul. Some people, particularly the wise and aged, could have souls within this variance.

Mateo still weighed more.

Was the Venetian Anubis scale more sensitive? Selvaggi himself had weighed Mateo in Genoa after implanting the augment. One soul.

“Very odd, Don Francesco,” the old sergeant said.

The corporal removed the feather and placed the next shining one on the scale. Mateo swayed as the plates balanced. He weighed six fifths of a soul.

Batu! Apollo burst!

Hot light flashed from Mateo’s skin. Men yelled, covering insulted eyes.

Mateo leapt from the scales. The door leading deeper into the Armory was right beside him but certainly locked. No time. The alarm had been raised.

Mateo ran to the door he’d come in by and yanked it open. He ran. Shouts sounded around him. A streak of purple light scored a column beside him. Another bloodied his arm, nearly throwing him to the cobblestones. Then he was on the streets, heart knocking loud in a hollow chest. Feet followed. Mateo plunged into the crowd. Swirling complaints eddied in his wake.

Batu! Give me my face back!

Mateo cast off Francesco’s surcoat and tabard. He ducked into an alley.

He’d struck the hive but not gotten close to the honey. The bees would now be everywhere. A lesser operative would now look for his extraction contact, get across the swamps before he was caught. Youth was sometimes too quick to act. As were the Venetians. The last thing they expected him to do was to go back to the enraged hive.

Mateo slowed as he came around the next corner, turning back towards the Temple of Odin, wearing the new face, his own. Across the plaza, all eyes were on the Palazzo. Armed men poured from the Armory. Shouts sounded in the alley he’d come through. He walked across the plaza, as calmly as any nosy gawker. He reached the temple and ordered Batu to unlock the door.

A temple was not like a church. A temple was a state military asset. People were not welcome. There was no reason to welcome them. Odin had no relationship with anyone in Venice; he was a gibbering monster of overripe flesh and rudderless power. His worship was conducted by colonels, not priests. Worship was the application of pain, with results familiar to anyone who had ever harnessed mule to plow.

Mateo stepped into the cool interior and closed the door behind him. Christ had been scraped from the dome and replaced with Norman artifacts and iconography. A dusty machine as large as a house dominated the center of the old basilica. Its gears and axles of ox and deer bone were quiescent, waiting for their colonels. Powered with enough blood, the machine would spin holes in the world, to where Odin floated in embryonic decay, without intent or meaning. Gunpowder waiting on fire.

Genoa had one just like it.

Mateo bandaged his arm quickly, cursing Selvaggi. Although he carried a dragon augment, he bled like an apprentice carrying his first goblin augment. The door handle behind him rattled. Mateo leapt into the east chapel. A man stepped in, an elite agent, like Mateo, not one of the Mantuan condottieri or Venetian regulars. Through Batu, Mateo felt other senses fluttering outward, smelling for magic. Batu wasn’t using magic, and that made Mateo invisible to any augments smelling for it. The enemy agent would have to find him with his eyes.

The man peered into the west chapel and then paced the basilica with a suspicious step. Mateo hugged the back of a column as the agent entered the east chapel with a bare sword.

Mateo stepped behind him on soft boots and touched him, letting Batu overwhelm both the agent and his basilisk augment. The man fell backwards. Mateo dragged him behind the column.

Safe for the moment, but what was he to do?

Selvaggi’s plan had gone awry. The minor cutting of Mateo’s soul had made room for Batu’s lobotomized one, but one of the two had grown. Perhaps the childlike Batu was becoming wise too quickly. If so, his curiosity was thwarting the best intelligence efforts of Genoa and had nearly gotten Mateo killed. He leaned against the wall, cradling the head of the man whose soul he was now responsible for. Like the lives of all of Genoa. He sighed.

Batu, Mateo thought, kill his augment, silently.

‘Set analysis: concept, killing, contained in set designated immoral acts?’

I need the man’s memories and soul. Do as I say.

Mateo pulled out the man’s knife. And prayed.

Batu, together you and I weigh six fifths of a soul. Cut away a fifth of this man’s soul, so that the three of us together weigh exactly two souls. With his clothing and appearance, we may get past their security.

‘Augment Batu, surgical skills: untrained.’

Do your best.

‘Process: Weight verification without Anubis scale?’

Estimate.

‘Projection: estimated error rate greater than tolerances for success,” Batu said. ‘Subject’s soul not mapped by weight.’ Mateo sighed. ‘Available: weight map of Don Mateo soul, recently measured to high precision.’

Mateo’s stomach twisted upon itself. Cut my soul again? Could he be emptied even more?

Christ wanted something; not for Himself, but for Mateo’s soul. And Mateo had already allowed his soul to be mutilated. What harm had that cutting done him? Was his moral sense damaged? Could he receive grace anymore? He’d damned those men in the orchard, not to protect Genoa but to protect Luciana. He’d exchanged their eternity for her present. Like a god of appetite. How much grace could be poured into a cup so fouled by its owner? No act of atonement could compensate.

The Venetian agent lay before him. His sparse whiskers and smooth face might have made him of an age with Mateo’s dead sons. His sons were gone, but perhaps, if Christ had spoken truly, they were beside the god who would not fight. Mateo, with his crimes for Genoa, might never join them, but maybe this man-boy could if Mateo would take that burden upon himself. Save Genoa. Save Luciana. Give this man-boy a chance for grace. Cut away part of his own soul, instead of the boy’s.

How would it work, Batu? Mateo asked.

‘Anatomical analysis: the third facet of the soul does not contain coding sequences,’ Batu answered.

Mateo regretted his ignorance of the soul’s anatomy. Selvaggi’s surgery had been small and targeted. This suggestion was akin to asking an apprentice butcher to lop off his arm. What would he lose now?

It didn’t matter. Luciana mattered.

Do it, Batu.

A very physical pain snapped inward, like a rock through stained glass.

Disorientation. Sadness. Numbness. Nausea.

Not at all like Selvaggi’s minor amputation.

Mateo donned the man’s livery. Then, he put his knife to the young man’s thinly-whiskered throat.

Hold his soul, Batu.

‘Emotional analysis: Don Mateo suffers from killing.’

Hold the soul.

The sharp knife parted the skin, the muscle, and caught on the wind pipe. Bright blood gushed. The soul joined them, in Mateo’s skull. The youth was no innocent, but Mateo’s sacrifice had kept him whole, given him a chance for grace.

“Bless you,” Mateo said.

His heart thumped dumbly. He had not meant it. The blessing was just words. Sounds.

“Please, Lord, keep him safe,” he said, aching to mean it. But he did not. He was empty.

Batu! What did you cut?

‘Anatomical analysis: Excised section does not code for any emotive functions, spiritual pathways, or esoteric sensory processing traits. Don Mateo is experiencing a spiritual-somatic reaction.’

The door to the basilica banged open.

“Stefano!” someone yelled.

Batu, change my shape to match Stefano’s!

Mateo jumped from the corpse on the floor. Once again, bones shifted in his cheeks, like someone pulling him from the inside.

“I’m done searching,” Mateo yelled back, already in Stefano’s voice, emerging from the east chapel. “But I didn’t even find dog shit.”

“Then look for shit outside.”

Mateo followed the senior agent into the blanching harshness of noontime sun and locked the basilica door. He had played soldier on many missions: condottieri mercenary, city loyalist, naval marine. No one had penetrated his disguises.

His squad scoured the plaza and side streets all afternoon. Near nightfall, they returned to the Armory. Other squads reported back at the same time and Mateo mingled in, following a pair who walked purposefully to the door of the reception room he’d so recently fled. Mateo slipped in with them, waiting with the bored patience of a tired soldier. The other two showed their licenses to carry augments and signed in with the seated sergeant. Then, the three of them eyed Mateo. He pulled out Stefano’s license and gave it to the sergeant.

“The Captain told me he wanted an extra hand here tonight,” Mateo said.

The sergeant grunted, then jerked his thumb towards the Anubis scale that had exposed Mateo only hours before. “I’m not taking any chances,” he said.

Mateo stepped onto one of the polished plates. They switched one finely-wrought copper feather for another, over and over, while he bobbed on the scale, like a gondola in the lagoon. Finally, they found the balance. Two feathers. Two souls. Precisely.

The sergeant noted this with stained fingers, then rose, belted on his sword, and told them to lock the door after him. He left into the waxing night. One of the men locked the door. The other claimed the chair, pulling out a set of dice and a few coins. Mateo pulled out his coin pouch and leaned onto the table

After a few rounds, it was Mateo’s turn to throw. It was easy to cheat at dice using a Thoth device, but all three were using their augments to smell for magic. The room itself was also set with sensors keyed to detect any magical emanations.

Mateo had to play this physically.

He tossed the dice a little too hard, rolling one off the table. The two men watched it tumble over. The nearest stooped to pick it up. Mateo rammed the edge of his hand into the seated man’s throat, crushing it. Before the other could even turn, Mateo was upon him with a knife, under the chin, slicing wide. He finished the gasping soldier in the chair before the man’s augment could call for help.

Mateo stepped to the door of the inner Armory but did not touch it. It would be physically locked, and certainly magically, at least with a Janus lock and more probably with a Cardea chain or a Portunes weave. All were arts of the known world. The art of the Mongols was not.

Batu, it is time for the Odlek clock.

The Mongols’ single god, Tengri, had different embodiments. Odlek was Tengri’s personification of time. While the magics of the door might be warded against the cyclic seasonal effects of Chronus, Odlek’s time was deep and linear. And none of the alarms would detect Odlek.

Batu loosed waves of corroding time. Dry rot filmed the door. Decades warped the boards. Dust rained from splitting wood. The protective magics, never meant to last decades, much less centuries, failed. The remnants of wood, like a net of lace, powdered silently to the floor.

The corridor beyond led to the inner sanctum of Venice. Stone walls sweated water onto the marble floor. Oil lamps pushed doughy light into darkness. Mateo crept in, clinging to the shadows.

Listening scarabs were certainly transmitting his location. Mateo couldn’t reveal his abilities yet. He needed to draw them out. He pulled free his sword, surprising a man emerging from a laboratory. Mateo gritted his teeth and plunged his blade into the man’s throat.

Two Venetian operatives bared their swords behind him. Mateo spun, knocking back their weapons. An operative electrified his own blade with a Jupiter tongue, shocking Mateo back. Four others appeared. They surrounded him. They were close enough.

Batu! Give me a Vulcan storm!

‘Negative,’ Batu said. ‘Harm to Don Mateo’s soul proportional to quantity of killing.’

What? Do it now! Or we both die!

A sword point bit deep into the muscles of Mateo’s shoulder.

‘Theological belief, subset Don Mateo: soul more important,’ Batu chattered.

Mateo knocked away two swords. I’ve made my choices, Batu! Obey me!

The Vulcan storm was a weapon for a battlefield of cannon and arquebusiers, prior to footmen and lancers diving in. It was too big to use in close quarters without consuming its summoner. This was true for basilisk, goblin, and wyvern, but Mateo carried a dragon brain.

Mateo’s skin hardened, stiffening his movements. Then yellow fire bloomed before him. Finding no room to grow, it shot down the corridor, cooking the air dry. Fuzziness filmed his sight as a membrane of dragon-eye shuttered over his own. Mateo’s clothes burned. His sword softened in his hand, the leather of the hilt charring. The Venetians were incinerated on their feet before the yawning whump of expanding fire dashed their ashes away.

Mateo, in his dragon skin, stepped woodenly over blackened bodies. Slate-colored smoke shuttered the hot orange light of the burning ceilings. A wooden door lay in flaming splinters. Beyond it, a membranous veil separated this world from the esoteric one, the skin of the world scraped passable by magic. Mateo stepped through.

Instead of a vast headquarters like the one Genoa had hidden in a god, only a small laboratory lay beyond the doorway in Venice. Thick glass on walls of imported stone showed orange god-blood. White blobs gnawed at the scored glass, eroding, scratch by scratch. The Venetians had not succeeded in co-opting the god’s humoral response.

He recognized some of the engines by the layouts of their piping. Genoa had similar models. The Shamash engine. The Neptune driver. The Balder point. None of these were important. Genoa already had engines for all these gods. Beside each were massive codices showing how to build and work the devices.

But the configurations of two of the engines were unfamiliar. Each was as large as a hay wagon, tall with copper pipes, greased gears, and polished mirrors. Deep beneath rotors and flywheels, the layout of the piping became difficult to view, the angles no longer fitting neatly into the three dimensions of the world. Imaginary angles led to dimensions governed by ordinal number systems where gods slavered.

Which one was the Enlil engine? Had Venice weaponized two new gods? His escape plan only included carrying one codex. He didn’t have the strength to make off with both, and he couldn’t commit the safety of Genoa to a coin toss.

He opened the first codex. Everything was ciphered. Even the symbols were slippery to the eye. Magical encryption was based on the factoring of imaginary numbers. Only esoteric beasts could perform such maddening calculations.

Batu, decrypt the text.

The dragon brain hummed. ‘Decryption key formed,’ Batu said. ‘Codex describes the Grace engine.’

Then the other codex contains the plans for the Enlil engine, Mateo thought. But what is the Grace engine?

‘Grace engine function: to move the god who will not fight,’ Batu said. ‘Deliver grace. Wash a soul clean of sin.’

“What?” Mateo asked out loud, suddenly cold. Forgiveness?

‘Function not limited to forgiveness. Includes sanctification,’ Batu said.

Mateo’s stomach lurched. What do you mean ‘sanctity’?

‘Concept, theological, subset sanctity: the especial holiness of those who have been touched by Christ,’ Batu said. ‘Those who can work miracles.’

To work miracles. To save souls, both living and dead. To bring grace to the souls Mateo had consigned to hells. To be forgiven.

Batu, can we carry both?

‘Calculation: combined weight of codices exceeds tolerances.’

Nor could Mateo receive the benefits of the Grace engine now. It would need hours to heat up, align its mirrors and spin its governors to the right speed. And Mateo was no engineer.

Could grace be used as a weapon? To counter the Enlil engine?

No. Christ was healing. The souls of those Mateo had sent to hell stared up from memory with yawning, worm-eaten eyes.

Apostlehood and sanctity. Healing of his soul. Healing of all souls he touched. Or a device of unutterable destruction.

Thou shalt have no other god above me.

Could his mutilated soul be trusted to choose?

If he returned with the Grace engine codex, Venice would inflict Enlil upon Genoa, followed by mercenary troops. Mateo would be killed. Luciana would be shipped into slavery or killed.

Clean souls. Dead bodies. They would meet in Heaven. With Christ.

Luciana.

He hefted the Enlil codex. He had no tears to offer forsaken grace. He struggled to the portal with the weight of the great book. Past the veil, in the real world, the stones were hot under naked feet. Stinging smoke hovered. Voices sounded. Straight, cutting shines from Apollo lenses wobbled in the distance.

He was cut off from the exit, and the last dragon trick had to be played. This was why Selvaggi had sent Mateo. Mateo could pull all the magic of an augment, all at once.

I am sorry, Batu.

‘Batu forgives.’

Then fly, Mateo whispered, opening the dragon’s mind wide.

The ground crumpled. The ceiling sheared open, dropping paving stones and building blocks around him.

They leapt into the night sky.

This was not the flight of a Persian or Slav dragon on leathern wings. This was the flight of a wingless Mongol dragon, whose young rose into the heavens on their own like worms on hooks.

They hurtled towards Genoa.

Mateo clutched the Enlil codex tighter, even as Batu’s voice slipped from his mind. He now sailed through the ether alone, above still clouds, riding the last of Batu’s magic back to Genoa. The grace was gone. The cup too fouled. He had become like the gods.


Read Comments on this Story (4 Comments)

ShareThis with Friends

Derek Künsken is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in Gatineau, Québec. His fiction has sold to Asimov's, On Spec, Black Gate, and other markets. Although trained as a molecular biologist, he left science to work with street children in Latin America and eventually found a career in refugee issues. When not writing, he is invariably found with his six-year old son playing with action figures, building forts, or reading comic books. He is just finishing a fantasy novel set seven years after the events in this story.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Silk and Shadow” by Tony Pi
“And Other Such Delights” by James Lecky

Return to Issue #84

Comments & Scrivenings
4 Comments on “The God Thieves”

4 Responses to “The God Thieves”

  1. Peter Darbyshire says:

    12-16-2011, 04:10 AM
    Peter Darbyshire

    !

    This is amazing.

  2. Syrio says:

    12-16-2011, 04:17 PM
    Syrio

    Agreed! Definitely on the lookout for the novel, Derek.

    -Michael A.

  3. […] sold a story called “God Thieves” to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It’s still up because BCS was paying good money for First […]

  4. Ronnie Darling says:

    Wonderful Wonderful story, I love all of the concepts!

Leave a Comment on “The God Thieves”