Aera: The Return of the Ancient Gods – Sneak Peek Week 1!

Hi all! And welcome to our blog. For the next four weeks, every Friday, until the publication of Aera: The Return of the Ancient Gods Part 1, we will be bringing you 10% of this amazing new episodic novel from Markus Heitz. So, the mathematically-minded out there (categorically not me), will have already worked out that’s 40% of the novel entirely free to read. Of course we hope this will entice you to buy – and being as it is only 99p, how can you resist? – but if it doesn’t, we hope you enjoy this little sneak peek of Markus’ new work. Remember to comment below if you’re enjoying it, or you can contact us on Twitter @JoFletcherBooks to discuss. Or you can even catch Markus on Twitter @Markus_Heitz, if you’re so inclined . . .

PROLOGUE

It happened in 2012.

From one day to the next they reappeared: the gods.

The old gods. The ones the Bible meant when it said ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ – the ones whose existence the Christian holy text had never denied. Or disputed.

Yet, in the twenty-first century it hadn’t occurred to anybody that the gods might return, appearing right in the middle of their weak conception of reality.

They rode down from the heavens.

They emerged from pyramids, from temples, shrines and sanctuaries,

from forests, swamps and clouds of smoke.

They spoke to their followers – everywhere.

They came in their hundreds, and they acted.

Reports of sightings came thick and fast: gods and goddesses from Manitou to Mictlantecuhtli, Anubis, Odin and Thor, from nameless deities of nature to the legendary Mars and Hephaestus, or Olorun, Mother Earth or Shiva, Loa or Kami, even manifestations of Buddha and Cai Shen – they existed.

Some gods went on camera and gave interviews, filling their long- ridiculed followers with courage and energy.

Some gods reclaimed their old sites of worship, long repurposed by other religions, predominantly Christians. Magnificent buildings were razed to the ground and replaced with forgotten icons.

Some gods lived among mortals in the old temples, in new

buildings, in high-rise apartments; others lived alone in underground bunkers or towers miles above the ground.

Some of them founded companies to broaden their influence in the mortal world, becoming involved in banking, investment and securities, engaging in the world’s economies.

And naturally, the larger corporations showed enormous interest in doing business with the gods.

Some gods took selected mortals with them to other planets; they brought back souvenirs, or erected buildings and stayed there. So said the rumours.

And lo, a new era of history began: faith became knowledge . . .

Only the Christians, the Muslims and the Jews waited in vain:

there was no God, no Allah, no Yahweh, no angels, no demons.

Not even the devil put in an appearance.

The mightiest religions in history withered into nothing more than godless cults, their followers scorned and ridiculed.

Mass conversions and wars followed, until society finally adjusted. And so the world changed.

For better or worse would remain to be seen . . .

 

Episode 1: Sacrifice

The gods of whom my parents told me, I have reverenced for all the time I lived under their rule, and I have always honoured those who begot my body. I have neither killed any other human being, nor stolen from any what he had entrusted to me, nor done any other unpardonable act.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead, c. 1500 BC

 

It wouldn’t have interested me, not even slightly.

Anyone living in these times knows exactly the kind of atrocities being committed by these ancient fucked-up deities, celebrated by blind, dull people. Or sometimes the other way round.

The modern and complex. The archaic and brutal.

We’re trapped in a fucking oxymoron, and it’s killing us. Technology, miracles, atrocities. Without vodka I’d be screwed.

Watching the news channels broadcasting from the Via del Sudario, I thought to myself: fuck this.

But then I saw him, caught in a hurried shot panning across the front of the house – the man looking out of the window.

You have to know who he is to recognise him.

He’s about forty with a narrow face, not particularly remarkable per se, either in stature or appearance. His black hair is short on the sides, a little longer on top and shaved on the neck. He’s recently grown a thinned-out version of the Fu Manchu moustache with a small beard which, combined with his remaining stubble, makes quite a bold statement, like a fucked-up old musketeer, but somehow more masculine. Underneath his right eye runs a barely visible horizontal scar, inflicted by a knife. That much I know.

Together with the black hat and the round sunglasses he was almost unrecognisable.

But not to me.

There was no stopping me: I had to go.

With shaking fingers I filled my hip flask, got dressed and rummaged through the piles of crap in my run-down flat until I found my semi-automatic.

And since then I’ve been following him. He doesn’t know it, but I’m there.

I’m there . . .

* Α Ω *

 

Italy, Rome. November 2019

Malleus regarded the mayor’s office, ransacked of all furnishings and objects except for the large, grey stone writing desk, presumably too heavy to move and too sturdy to destroy; instead it had been painted with what a layman might assume were simply red, upward-pointing arrows.

Faded rectangles on the panelled walls showed where pictures had once hung, and dustless outlines on the floors and carpets betrayed the previous positions of looted objects. The stereo, speakers and other built-in electronics including the television had been removed with professional skill, as evidenced by the few remaining cables hanging out of the walls. The door to the safe was open, revealing only a yawning emptiness.

What caught Malleus’ eye, however, were a set of three makeshift

ropes, which on closer inspection were made from fresh, sinewy branches. A fresh scent suggested that they had been cut only recently. Three loops wound round the heavy table and trailed out of the open window.

One would assume that the criminals – for whatever reason – had chosen to use natural rather than synthetic materials to escape the scene.

The object hanging on the other end of the rope, however, was far from natural.

The twisted branches creaked softly, moved gently as if someone were pulling on them.

Malleus strode across the room and glanced out of the neighbouring window onto the street outside, bathed in dwindling sunlight and busy with people.

The curious amongst them crowded into the Via del Sudario behind the police barriers. People were taking photographs and chattering excitably amongst themselves, some leaving, others arriving, drawn by the novelty, eager to see what was happening with their own eyes.

Malleus raised his personal digital assistant – PDA for short – and filmed a quick panning shot of the crowd. He captured the looming temples and palaces, restored to new glory, lit with attention-grabbing spotlights; enormous braziers adorned pillars and flat roofs.

The city’s dutiful maintenance of its ancient monuments had accelerated after the arrival of the ancient gods into a magnificent restoration project. A new Rome had arisen, in splendid neoclassical style.

Beacons glowed in the Colosseum, illuminating the countless arches and throwing great shafts of light into the dimming sky to greet Jupiter.

The Roman Forum, once a ruinous tourist attraction, was being fully restored. Works were still in progress, and the plans for the new buildings stretched until 2050, Malleus had read in a newspaper on the way to Rome. The gods willed it so.

The gods will a lot of things, he thought.

‘Monsieur Bourreau! Come downstairs so we can finish this undignified spectacle,’ called one of the plain-clothes detectives.

‘They’ve been hanging there long enough.’

Malleus pocketed his PDA, crossed the room and regarded it one last time before exiting into the corridor and heading downstairs. He was wearing his dark frock coat, cut after the Indian fashion, and a black military coat with an extra high collar. His shoes were plain, flat and black.

On the way downstairs he lit one of his thin, twisted cigars. They smelled terrible and produced enough smoke to be considered a significant source of air pollution. Malleus hated e-cigarettes as much as the smoking ban, so he ignored both. He puffed on a Culebra with a green band. The green ones are best for thinking.

He could have corrected the yelling officer: he wasn’t a Monsieur, he was neither French nor Belgian. He was German, or at least that’s what his passport said. But correcting him would only have raised the attention of the crowd. He didn’t like being recognised, though it did occasionally happen despite his sunglasses and hat.

As Malleus came out into the open, the clouds rolled together into a grey-black mass and the first bolts of lightning began to flash across the sky; low thunder rumbled over the crowd and the buildings of Rome.

‘Zeus is coming! See, he’s manifesting to inspect the crime scene,’ he heard a passing woman saying, full of conviction. She was manically snapping photos of the gathering webs of clouds. ‘He’ll find these Germanic murderers before the police do. Watch for his signal!’

Malleus adjusted his hat. There was much he could have said. For example, he could have said that Zeus couldn’t care less who had killed who. That Zeus was almost certainly behind a bush right now having it off with someone just like her. Or that Zeus didn’t generally bother to disguise himself as a storm. That, in any case, they were on Roman soil, meaning it would be Jupiter who would turn up, if anyone.

But anyone who wanted to believe in this apparently godly spectacle would believe regardless. This kind of supposed evidence had been turning up for years. All over the world.

Malleus remained unimpressed.

For him there were at least half a dozen explanations for the return of the gods; for instance, that extra-terrestrials understood exactly how to subjugate the human spirit, and had done some extensive reading into our panthron. Or perhaps mass hypnosis in combination with technology, giving people something to waste their energy on so they’d rather pray to deities than protest against their circumstances. He held these and many other theories to be entirely plausible.

Malleus pushed past the barrier and found the grey-haired detective, appropriately named Romano. Everything about him was grey – coat, eyes, beard.

They shook hands, then turned to look at the house.

Dangling out of the window – fully visible in the glow of the streetlamps – was a man’s naked corpse. Judging by the proportions and tattoos it was the mayor, Emanuele Domenico, with a black bag tied over his head. To the right and left of him hung two dead dogs, strung up in the same manner as their owner. Snow-white Labradors, their tongues lolling flaccidly from their muzzles.

The crisp wind played with the three bodies, which had been discovered in the early morning by a passer-by. Dog and man began a grotesque dance, swinging and crashing together, spinning in sinister pirouettes. The legs of the man were caked with dried excrement.

Rome, the city which took the whole world, is itself taken.’ Romano read the scrawled runes above the windows aloud. ‘And the upward- pointing arrows again too.’

‘Tiwaz: the T-rune, of the god Tyr.’ Malleus puffed on the cigar dangling from the left corner of his mouth, spilling its acrid smoke up into the night sky. He removed his sunglasses to see more clearly; the blue contact lenses concealed his multi-coloured irises. ‘Head of the Germanic pantheon and understood as a son of Odin in later mythology.’ He stuck his hands in his pockets, taking care not to crush the sunglasses.

‘Master of slaughter and god of war.’

‘We already knew that.’ Romano jumped as a bolt of lightning flashed across the sky and dissolved with a crackle. A few bystanders clapped and praised Jupiter. ‘It displeases our gods when Germanics murder people in their city.’

‘Would they prefer it if it was just their followers killing each other, Commissario?’ Malleus grinned widely. ‘The gods are more similar to each other than they like to admit.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘The Tiwaz rune shows a remarkable similarity to the planetary sign of Mars. In fact one might even wonder if Tyr, Jupiter, Zeus and Mars might be—’

Romano snorted. ‘No blasphemous lectures today please. I know what you are, Monsieur Bourreau.’

‘And that’s exactly why I’m standing here. Because I can think clearly.’ Malleus kept his tone polite. He took his right hand out of his pocket and pointed to the sentence on the wall. ‘It’s a quote attributed to Hieronymus, one of the fathers of the early Christian Church, as he witnessed the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths. That was in 410, according to the Christian calendar.’

‘We know.’ The grey Romano endured the history lesson with visible irritation.

Malleus savoured it. ‘The ransacked office is a reference to the pillaging of Rome.’ With his left hand he took the cigar from the corner of his mouth, and spat a few crumbs of tobacco onto the floor. That was the drawback of cutting off the whole cap rather than just punching a hole in it. ‘The hanging in a public place, the ropes made of branches, the hood over the head, the dead dogs, it’s all reminiscent of ancient Germanic punishments. And they hung him high too, which is especially shameful.’

‘They?’

‘It would take more than two men to subdue the dogs, hang that lump of a mayor and completely empty the office.’ Malleus gestured backwards with his thumb, his cigar swirling more smoke signals as a loud clap of thunder rumbled above them. ‘A lot of effort.’

The first stragglers began to leave the area, fearing either the growing storm or the possibility of falling victim to Jupiter’s wrath. A lightning strike to the ground would knock a few people off their feet . . . or leave them seriously injured.

‘We thought so too.’ Romano made a couple of reassuring gestures in the direction of his task force, who were pointing with concern at the corpses and the darkening sky. They were getting anxious. ‘All things considered, we’re treating it as a murder with religious motives: Germanics who want to announce their arrival and make a show of Tyr’s power. Hence killing Signore Domenico according to their old customs. We wanted to get an expert opinion on it. Just to be sure, before we take it to the press and the Pantheon. Do you agree with my assessment?’

‘Pantheon. Right. I’ve always wanted to go there.’ Malleus scratched his left eyebrow.

Romano looked shocked. ‘You can’t seriously want to set foot in the shrine?’

Malleus laughed. ‘What do you think’s going to happen? Is the whole building going to crumble to the ground as soon as I go in?’ He puffed on his cigar and blew the smoke skywards. The blue-grey fog ascended slowly and vertically, unmoved by the rising squall.

The detective quickly checked his tone. ‘What you do in your free time is your business. Not mine.’ He looked up at the corpses, now swinging and spinning more vigorously, as if dancing gaily in a fresh spring breeze. ‘So I’ll have them cut down—’

‘It’s too early for me to give my full opinion. I’ll need to take a closer look at the writing and the colour,’ Malleus interjected. ‘But whoever wrote this, I don’t think they were well-versed in Germanic runes.’ He pointed with his left hand at the writing on the wall, gesturing back and forth with his cigar, glowing as red as the painted characters. ‘Scrawled, uneven, uncertain. And the Tyr runes on the victim’s table were painted sloppily too. Whoever did this had plenty of time, so it isn’t just that it’s hurried work. Someone who wanted to publicly herald the power of his god would make more of an effort. A lot more. This painter was just copying from a source.’

‘Oh?’

‘Hanging was a punishment usually reserved for thieves.’ Malleus pointed to the body of the mayor. ‘To be truly accurate they should have cut off his head afterwards and put the skull on public display. This isn’t about the old customs, it’s all about the mayor. A celebrity. The official representative of the Rome they want to break. They strung him up because blood’s more impressive when it’s dripping from above.’ He looked at the detective. ‘I’m sure you know that from your temple sacrifices.’

Romano’s protruding cheek muscles betrayed his clenched teeth.

‘So it’s not a religious murder?’

‘No. And the fact that these supposed Germanics found the safe and opened it without force—’

‘Domenico could have told them where it was.’

Malleus shook his head. ‘I don’t think so. No marks on the body suggesting torture or beating. At least none that I can see from here. And another thing: they took everything of value with them – but they left the study untouched. What kind of half-arsed pillaging is that?’

‘Maybe it’s symbolic?’

‘Please, Commissario.’ Malleus exhaled a cloud of smoke into the wind. ‘Germanics showing restraint? At a pillaging? Does that sound right to you?’ He took another puff on his cigar and flicked the end. The falling ash lost its glow immediately, curls of smoke surrendering to the gathering winds.

A light rain began to fall, and more onlookers dispersed. The wet ground would conduct electricity better. Many of the laws of physics still applied, regardless of how miraculous the actions of the gods might be.

‘Find out where the things in Domenico’s office came from,’ Malleus recommended, ‘because I’m guessing he didn’t pay for any of it. Then you’ll find the real and probably very earthly reason why he and his dogs are hanging out of that window. My guess? Somebody gave a lot of gifts and a lot of money to the mayor in the past, and yesterday they took it all back. Could be an arm of the Mafia. Could be a disappointed industrialist sending his repo-men to reclaim some bribes. And to distract from the real motive, all they had to do was stir up the tensions between the Germanics and the Italians – give the gods a bit of a tease.’

‘Like atheists, you mean?’ Romano replied cuttingly.

Malleus smiled. ‘My dear Commissario! Atheists can’t make fun of something that doesn’t exist. That would be a paradox.’

Romano dispatched his team, who prepared to retrieve the corpses, muttering various comments as they worked. ‘So I should tell the press it isn’t a religiously motivated murder we’re looking at?’

‘Would be wise, Commissario. You’ll lose the upper hand, sure, because whoever did it will know you weren’t taken in by this little stunt, but it shows you’re serious.’

Malleus was about to continue when a bolt of lightning tore out of the sky.

Goose pimples covered the skin of every person in the square as the electric potential in the air became palpable, and the crackling energy coursed straight into the mayor’s corpse in a shower of sparks.

The crowd in the Via del Sudario cried out in unison.

The impact of the electrostatic discharge tore the body in two, blood spraying across the walls. The lower body fell to the street with a loud thud, the charred flesh rupturing on contact. The entrails followed, some hanging momentarily from the cadaver like long, thick worms before tearing apart and tumbling into a pile.

The smell of excrement intensified.

The branch holding the body had caught aflame and the fire quickly spread to the hood over the corpse’s head, burning the face of the murdered mayor.

The onlookers stared and fell silent, searching mutely for the correct interpretation of this sign from the gods.

Malleus offered the stunned Romano his hand and shook, though the detective barely returned the gesture. ‘You should probably give a public statement at a later date interpreting this particular incident as a confirmation from the gods of Signore Domenico’s criminal machinations. Retribution from Jupiter or something. But I’m sure you’d already thought of that, Commissario,’ he said, giving a casual wave as he walked off.

Malleus put on his aubergine-coloured gloves, slipped under the police tape and pushed his way through the hushed crowds, who were now watching the fire service as they sprayed the glowing remains of the corpse with their fire extinguishers.

He felt drawn towards the Pantheon, like a scientist towards the centre of an epidemic.

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