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JANUARY 12, 1938
WITCHES OF WEIR
The last time the Alliance of Man convened in Rome was nearly five years earlier, in April 1933. Then, as now, the subject was the so-called Summoning Children. Then, though, they were barely on the precipice of puberty. Now they were all seventeen or just about seventeen. Were young men and young women.
May also be young gods and young goddesses!
"There were at least two Trojan Wars," Brunhild von Alptraum, whose birthday it was, was telling her refound friend, Virginia Mannering, at the same get-acquainted gathering the night of January 12, 1938.
They spoke in English, a language Brunhild was marginally better at than Mannering. Despite her last name, Ginny was born in Italy, near Naples, not far south of Rome, and had spent most of the last seven years in Mexico City, where her foster parents, Diego and Dolores nee D'Angelo Rivera, resided.
Although both painted, Diego was not the famous muralist of the same name; a fact which conflicted with his ability to make a decent living in his preferred profession, as a portrait painter. Did not bother him overly much, however. He preferred to have a life. What extra income he required he managed to acquire by selling his photographs, which were also mostly portraits. Dolores was a fine photographer as well.
"One was fought over a beautiful woman, Helen of Troy. But that one is mostly a myth. The other one definitely happened, in 451 AD, on the plains of Troy. But not the one in Asia Minor, the one in Gaul, old France, Troyes, which was about a hundred miles east of Paris. Historians refer to it as the Battle of Chalons."
"Never heard of it."
"Neither would I have except the ancestors of two sections of my extended family were there. Or thereabouts."
"Fifteen hundred years is a long way back to be able to trace your family tree. I can't even find out who my parents were." Not for sure, Ginny thought to herself, though she had a pretty good idea who they were. So too, apparently, did Brunhild.
"Yet I hear the great man, Loxus Ryne himself, supports your foster parents and pays for your upbringing."
"He says I look like his mother, which is to say I look like him. They were twins. He suspects I could be his daughter. Either that or his own father's daughter by either Sorrow or her sister, the Celestial Superior."
Sorrow was foster mom Dolores while the Celestial Superior was her elder sister, Celestine. Even though she was only in her mid-thirties, Dolores was the Mother Superior of the life-loving Sisterhood of Anthea. She inherited the title when Celestine was viciously murdered, butchered more like, by person or persons unknown nearly fifteen years earlier.
"None of the ones who survived the trip to Nepal, when both of us were conceived, can remember anything about it." As Mannering was aware, that was only partially true. The Angelics' youngest sister, Mnemosyne, claimed to remember a lot of it. No one believed her, though. Mostly because Memory's memories made no sense. "So, who are these ancestors of yours? Were they famous?"
"Couldn't get more famous. First let me tell you about the Battle. You see, there was this fabulous treasure kept at Troyes. It had been brought from Rome seventy, eighty years earlier and returned to its rightful owners, the Visigoths, -- at least the Romans who brought it to them thought they were the rightful owners. The neighbouring Burgundians had different ideas.
"About twenty years earlier they even had the treasure for a brief period but Theodoric, the King of Visigoths, had it back by then. The Burgundians weren't the only ones with their eye on the trove though. The Ostrogoths did too, as did the King of the Vandals, Gaiseric, and the first relative I mentioned. Can you guess who he was?"
"Haven't a clue?"
"He had a bunch of names. Ethele, Etzel and Atli were three of them. But he's best known as Attila the Hun."
"Cross my heart and hope to die if I'm lying."
"Let's hope you aren't then. Especially not on your seventeenth birthday. Wouldn't be right. What was this treasure?"
"Oh it's famous too but the battle was one of the biggest ever; bigger than that other Troy and just about any other one until maybe the last one, the War to End All Wars."
"We hope," Ginny said again.
"My daddy Tyrtod's not so sure about that and Cousin Tanith's Daddy Tyrtod is convinced another one's overdue, but that's another matter. Anyhow, maybe two hundred, three hundred thousand people were slain, and that was just on the Hun's side. King Theodoric was one of the ones killed on the other side. Attila was decisively beaten, but he got away, -- with the whole treasure.
"The Roman general who really won the battle was Flavius Aetius. My maternal grandmother says he was as good as the Western Roman Emperor. And he was mightily miffed. Chased Attila right out of Gaul, right across the Rhine River and into the Kingdom of Burgundy, where that other relative I mentioned lived.
"Her name was Kriemhild. Since her mother's name was Grimhild, which sounds almost exactly the same, I'll call her by one of her other names, Gudrun. This Gudrun's oldest brother was Gunther. He was the King of Worms, the Burgundians' capital. Their last name was Nibelung."
"You mean like in Wagner's operas?"
"Same stuff. Only this is the truth. Gudrun had been a widow for something like thirteen years by then, -- her first husband was the guy who had the treasure before Theodoric got it back. His name was Sigurd but his last name was Volsung, which she adopted and passed along to her daughter by Attila, -- to hers to hers and so on and so on until my grandmother got it."
"I assumed your father would have had a mother."
"Hulga the Hag, then. She gave it to my mother who gave it to me, and when I have a girl I'll give it to her. So will Tanith, Aunt Astrid's kid by the other Tyrtod, Von Blut, and Valfreja, Hulga's grey baby. That's what she calls Freya because she was grey when she had her. We're all Volsungs. Except Daddy prefers me using Alptraum, which is a dumb name. Know what it means?"
"Something to do with the Alps I presume."
"Von Alps are Prussians, from way up north on the Baltic Sea Coast. We're almost more Russian than German. But, to answer my own question, it means 'Nightmare.' How would you like go through your life being a walking nightmare?"
"Better than being a perpetual Virginia, I'd say." Both teenagers laughed at that. Until they got sidetracked they had been discussing some of the similarly aged boys at the gathering. Brunhild fancied one of the Americans. He dressed like a cowboy and actually was from Texas.
Ginny disagreed with her choice. Tex and Mex did not get along, she pointed out. When her friend queried as to her favourite, Mannering told her she was keeping her options open and her legs crossed. They thought that was funny too.
"I got my name from Attila's sister. You know, the Sleeping Beauty, the one everyone thinks was a Valkyrie but was actually a real life human being, -- sort of! She was married to King Gunther but she should have been married to Sigurd Volsung, who had married Gudrun. Got all that?"
"Barely a word of it. Then again, I probably wouldn't get it even if you told it to me in Italian or Spanish."
"Oh, it's a long story and gets all muddled up if you try to remember every little detail. Point is here comes Attila with the Romans in hot pursuit. He's got the Hoard of the Nibelung but the good General-Almost-Emperor Aetius isn't going to let him get away with it."
"Can't blame him. It's supposed to generate endless wealth."
"So what does old Attila do but dump it into the Rhine, hence the Rhinegold, and keeps right on going. But not until he's gathered up Gudrun for his wife. Next year he invades Italy; would have taken Rome except Pope Leo the Lion convinces him it isn't worth the hassle. Year after that he dies at the age of forty-seven or thereabouts."
"And the Rhinegold has remained lost in the bottom of the Rhine River ever since."
"The story is that a guy named Hogan, Hagen, or Hogni, who was either a Nibelung prince and, as such, another of Gunther and Gudrun's brothers, or an advisor to King Gunther, also knew where it was. So Queen Gudrun, -- she's Queen of the Huns now, remember --, invites the Burgundians to Attila's court ostensibly to witness the christening, or whatever pagans did in those days, of her newborn daughter, whose name was Venite, that is to say Venus. She's sort of famous too, since she apparently founded Venice."
"That's Wagner too, isn't it?"
"Lohengrin, I think. Unless it's Parsifal."
"Lohengrin then. I know Parsifal. Get dragged to it nearly every Easter."
"Poor baby. You were saying?"
"Right. So Gudrun creams, poisons, the lot of them, including Attila. Now she and she alone knows where the hoard is hidden. Unfortunately some uppity German hero, my grandmother says his name was Tyrtod, same as my father and Tanith's father, returns the favour. Puts out her lights forevermore." She took a sip of wine, hardly her first. "But, wait, here comes the good bits."
"Story's already got a lot of good bits."
"True enough," agreed Brunhild, taking another sip. More like a gulp. "Seems Gudrun Volsung gave her baby Venite an engraved bracelet before she died. This is the famous Ring of the Nibelung, the real one, not the one that generates endless wealth.
"Like our last name, it was passed down through the ages from mother to daughter. No one could make any sense of the engravings until my grandmother, Horrid Hulga my dad calls her, Hulga the Hag my cousins and I call her, came back from the Valley of the Visionaries in mid 1920."
"Pregnant, -- like all the women who escaped the aftermath of the Summoning were." Ginny did not know if this was an altogether accurate statement but something like sixty of their fellow teens in Rome with their parents or guardians for tomorrow's Assembly of Man, all of whom were born within a month of each other, tended to support it.
"Maybe her stint there improved her vision. No pun intended, though it wasn't a bad one. Vale of the Visionaries?"
"I got it."
"Or maybe her pregnancy with Freya laid her up so badly that she had nothing better to do. Thing is she got real good reading old runes. You know, like the Druids and Odin and all that. She translated the engravings and learned where the hoard was hidden. What to do, what to do? What she did do, after years of looking for it herself, was tell Etzel Sangati about it last autumn."
"Sangati!" Ginny almost swallowed her fork along with the roast veal skewered on it. "What in God's name for?"
"She says she was drunk. But he's got these big brown eyes and, who knows, maybe he seduced her. For an old crone Hulga's not all that bad looking. Besides, like I said, we're all relatives of sorts. He's not called Etzel for nothing."
"Don't tell me! He goes back to Attila too?"
"Attila's uncle actually. His name was Bleda, same as Etzel's father, -- the one who got eaten during the Summoning."
"That's one story I have heard," Miss Mannering admitted, fingering the matching bracelets she wore on either wrist in barely concealed agitation. "In Italian and in Spanish. My foster parents were there. Her sister, Celestine D'Angelo, found Etzel out of his mind and squatting in his old man's remains."
"So you don't need to hear it again. Good thing too. This food is superb."
"Sister Sorrow doesn't eat meat," said Ginny, again referring to her foster mother, Dolores Rivera. "And all this talk of cannibalism's putting me off my meal."
"Your loss. So, where was I?"
"Sangati was in your grandmother's good books."
"In between the pages, like a bookmark!" Brunhild flushed at that and began to giggle. Clearly thought it kind of racy. Unless it was just the wine of course. Ginny figured crimson suited her. Her name did mean Burning Hell after all.
"Oh yes, almost forgot," said the German once she recovered her composure sufficiently to carry on. "We actually are related, though the relationship's a bit convoluted. Aunt Astrid's brother-in-law is married to the sister of the husband of one of Etzel's sisters. Something like that anyhow. I'm not very big on family trees. Afraid I'll fall off, I guess." She thought that even funnier than bookmark.
"Big on the fruit though."
"Hey, wine doesn't grow on trees. It grows on vines."
"My mistake. I thought it was grapes." Brunhild gave Ginny a withering glance but obviously decided not to chide her for being a birthday spoilsport.
"Grandmother Hulga uses another of his sisters, -- the one she's sitting with over there, Medea Annulis is her name --, as her fortune-teller. They are all Little Egyptians after all. And, irony of ironing boards, Medea's father was named Aeetes, same as that Roman General, Aetius, the real Attila's nemesis. Pretty coincidental, eh? There's fits and locks everywhere you look."
"That's fits and starts. At least I think it is."
"No matter. Idioms are for idiots. Well, not all that long ago, Sangati and that big brute he calls Djinn found the Hoard of the Nibelung. Not far from old Worms either. Kept it too. My dad's emptied his bank accounts trying to buy it back from him. We're supposed to take delivery two days from now."
"Why would someone sell the Rhinegold? Sounds almost like a contraption of terms. I mean, what could be worth more than something that generates endless wealth?"
"Word's contradiction, Miss Smarmy-Smartypants. But, don't you see? That's the wildest thing of all! Turns out it's just a big old glass treasure chest of junk: spears, hammers, necklaces and other bits of jewellery; armour, capes, scale models of ships, chariots, eight-legged horses and such like arcana. All of which is entirely useless to Etzel Sangati because he's a gypsy."
"Oh, come on, Brunhild. That's like saying I can't put a bone through my nose because I'm not African."
"It is? The Murrays are black African, at least the mother is, and they don't ..."
"I think that's what I was trying to say."
"But it's true. You see, even though he's descended from Attila the Hun, his father was Rumanian, Carpathian actually, and his mother, if she was his mother, is a Black Sea Russian, a Georgian I think, though she might have been Armenian. Like Medea's husband, who's actually mostly Greek, I think."
"And I think it's time for dessert. Have some Italian ice cream. It's the best in the world. Then tell me why your father's spent his fortune buying back a box full of knickknacks?"
"Good word, knacks. Knicks isn't bad either. After all, if Etzel hadn't got into Granny's knickers he never would have found the Tantalus."
"I think you're getting drunk, Brunhild. A fine enough thing to do on your birthday but it plays hell with continuity. What in God's name is a Tantalus?"
"The old box, silly. The treasure chest the Romans gave back to the Goths. Only Siegfried Volsung got it away from them. Or maybe it was his father, Siegmund. No, he had the sword."
"Correction, you already are drunk."
"Doesn't matter. Point is I hope I get a valkyrie's spear. Maybe the swansuit, though Tanith's got her eye on that."
"Just for the sake of friendship, try making sense."
"It was confiscated by Roman soldiers, years and years ago, when they first invaded the heartland of the old-time Germanic tribes. They kept it in the Shrine of their military's god, Mithra, Kore's boyfriend. Until the Christians got hold of his Mithraeum and tossed his troves on the garbage heap, that is. It's full of all the old, you know, gadgets and gewgaws and such. I told you."
"I'm begging you, what the hell is it?"
"It's the treasury of the gods, our gods. Aesir, Vanir, Odin, Thor, Tyr, Frigga, -- all their stuff. Freya wants the Brisingamen, the Goddess Valfreja's golden torc. She'll probably get the falcon cloak Loki used to borrow all the time as well. And Tanith ...."
"Shut up and eat your Gelato."
At the reception after the feast, Diego Rivera, Virginia's Mexican-born foster father, and Etzel Sangati, Count Molech, the Melanchlaeni Magician, were reacquainted by the former's wife, Dolores nee D'Angelo, who had known the gypsy Mountebank since even before the Summoning, which was when Diego first encountered Sangati. She left them to chat while she went over to spend some time with the Rynes, Loxus and Eden, and the Dre'Aths, Angus and Gilda.
Occasionally they would nervously glance over at the two men. Glance overtop of the two men more like, -- to Djinn, who was never far from his master. Was also the one who mainly made them jittery. It wasn't that he was armed. Many of the men there, including the patriarch, carried pistols. Xuthrodites usually did. Something to do with being free men.
Wasn't what he was armed with, though no else had a scimitar sheathed at his side. Wasn't his size. Goliath may have been a Philistine, not an Arab, but his albeit moderately reduced genes seemingly hadn't died out with him three thousand odd years ago. Wasn't even that no one had come across him before a few months back. No, it was his skin. He must have dyed it.
Etzel, looking like he was about to burst out of his formal evening clothes, was showing off the huge ruby-red ring he wore on his left hand. Ryne remarked that it looked vaguely familiar. He was lying. There was nothing vague about it. He knew exactly where it came from, knew who had it last, -- a distant cousin on his mother's side, Megaera nee Kinesis now Zeross.
The famous Greek, make that Etocretan, philosopher, Angelo Zeross, the self-proclaimed Ringleader, had given it to her on their wedding day approaching eight years ago now. She'd worn it proudly ever since. Not any more though. Not since at least early last fall. Then again Meg didn't have the finger she used to wear it on any more either.
After they separated, Djinn, who rarely spoke himself, never more than a couple of steps behind him, Sangati went over to speak with the von Bluts, the von Alptraums, and that most formidable of matriarchs, Hulga Faust always Volsung. Meanwhile Rivera joined his wife, the Rynes, and the Dre'Aths.
<<"Must have been an interesting conversation, Diego,">> Sister Sorrow ventured in the Spanish they usually spoke to each other. <<Especially considering you speak about as much Greek or gypsy as he does Spanish. Which is next to none at all.">>
<<"Our English was good enough,">> he responded. <<"A most unique ring he was showing me. Very old. He said it's as old as King Solomon. Was in fact Solomon's at one time. But he is a notorious charlatan, is he not?">> Eden nee Nightingale was simultaneously translating the Riveras' words into English for the benefit of her husband and the Dre'Aths, though she suspected Angus understood far more Italian than he let on.
"As I was saying to our old friend, Hulga Faust, just after supper," provided Gilda, "We have something like that in our legends. Called the Ring of Ogier, it was said to remove all infirmities and restore the aged to youth. We could definitely do with something like that right about now, couldn't we, Angus?"
"Aye, Goldie, that we could."
"Surprised he didn't call it the Ring of the Nibelung," offered the Dutch-Iraryan, young for a patriarch Great Man in his near-perfect, barely-accented English.
"He did," said Diego, in his unpractised and consequently nowadays entirely imperfect English. "No. Maybe. Ring of Nebuland. Must be Nibelung. His accent, you know. Huns are like that. Not popular in Mexico. Benito Juarez shot the last one we had about seventy years ago."
"They certainly are right now with Franco in Spain. Besides, Sangati isn't that kind of Hun. Oh, oh!"
The Great Man's 'Oh, oh!' was immediately echoed by the two Dre'Aths. Dolores' ever-enticing sister, Mnemosyne D'Angelo, was leaving the hall arm-in-arm with their baby, the Dre'Aths' Summoning Aged son, Maxwell. As if that was not bad enough, Sister Sorrow's only brother, the official host of the Alliance's Assembly of Man, Raphael, was stomping towards them.
"Happy now?" he demanded of the Rynes and Dre'Aths. "Lilith have boy for bed. He, he ...." His English was hopeless so he turned to his sister, hurled Italian invective at her, then stomped off again, no doubt to rage at his wife, Sophia nee St Synne.
"Not a big fan of Memory, is he?" observed Loxus Ryne.
"Neither am I right now," said Angus Dre'Ath. He made to go after his son. Gilda grabbed him by the arm.
"Leave him be, love. Max is like you were at his age. Just be thankful he didn't try on one of the Volsung girls. Hulga wields a mean machete."
"Thought it was a moon-sickle," joked Ryne's wife of less than a decade. She still used her maiden name and insisted daughter Aranyani, who was born the last time the Alliance gathered in Rome back in '33, did too. Was a remarkable-looking woman of twenty-eight with streaks of pure silver in her otherwise jet black hair. Had different coloured eyeballs as well.
"That was Rhea Sangati," Dolores pointed out. "Which brings us back to what we were talking about. I'll do Korants, Eden; you do Mithrants, -- okay?"
"My books are in Amsterdam. I'll have to rely on memory."
"So'll young Max," observed her husband, wryly. No one ever laughed at his jokes and Nightingale had no problem honouring the tradition.
"Jealousy ill-becomes you, Abe. So long as I'm around the only woman you need rely on is me."
Ryne, who liked nothing better than to tease his lovely wife, was about to say something he considered suitable smart when Virginia Mannering walked by them. Not only did he chose to say nothing at all he averted both Ginny's oddly iridescent eyes and Eden's two-toned ones.
It was hard to say something smart when he knew damn well that, come tomorrow night, he would probably do the dumbest thing he would ever do in this life. Send someone he loved more than perhaps anyone except his three children by Eden into the proverbial jaws of death. Check that. Loved as much as his children.
Primarily because she may well be his child.
Ginny was heading to the bathroom to check on her refound friend, whom she had left under the care of the two other birthday girls: Brunhild's astonishingly silver-haired cousin, Tanith von Blut, and their identically-aged, to the minute, aunt, -- the golden-tressed Valfreja Volsung.
Most of the cubicle doors were shut but the unmistakeable sound, not to mention smell, of someone being sick was all Ginny needed to determine where the Volsungs were attending to Burning Hell. Just then though a toilet flushed and outstepped a pretty little silver-blonde child all dudded up in a party dress.
"Hello, mommy," said the veritable Alice of Wonderland fame, in English but with a French-sounding accent.
"I'm hardly your mother, little girl."
"Just joking. Mine's dead. Nice eyes."
There were a large number of Summoning Children at the reception. And so there should be, since the Alliance of Man's gathering in Rome was to decide their future; their educational future at least. Most were with their parents or designated surrogates but some had formed cliques based mostly on nationality.
Some, like the Japanese, had not even shown up, -- based entirely on nationality. Others, particularly the communists, and not just those of the Soviet Union, hung out together for ideological reasons. One of the oddest groupings had to be the Cretans and gypsies associated with the anarchist philosopher, Angelo Zeross.
There were a number of children in that group but not all were born as a consequence of the Godling Guild's Summoning to Nepal a month shy of eighteen years earlier. One of the Summoning Children who was with them was Zeross' youngest sister, Argiope, whose name meant Bright Face and whose life Ringleader feared for so much so he had tried to convince the Great Man, Abe Ryne, to have Count Molech killed.
Another was Roxanne nee Heliopolis, who was already married, -- to Angelo's brother-in-law, Alexandros Kinesis --, and had a one year old child she left in Greece with the Atreides, Pelops and Clymene, on Trigon, the Island the Family Zeross owned in the Aegean Sea not far south of Crete.
The Atreides were getting on and did not travel very much any more. Had only one surviving offspring, a daughter named Laodice. She was among the nearly seventeen year olds in Rome with the Zerosses and, somewhat ironically since most of those she was with were avowed anarchists, her name meant law-lover.
A fourth Summoning Child there was Apsyrtus Annulis while Ramona Avar, a young dark-haired girl no more than nine or ten, was lurking around the group's fringes. The mothers of these last two, Medea Annulis and Mata Avar, were daughters of the oft-married Rhea Ararat, she who disappeared on the Guild's ill-fated expedition to the Himalayan Valley of Visionaries all those years ago.
Mama Rhea's eldest daughter was Olympias Sangati Kinesis, another one lost in 1920. She was the mother of Alex and the now four-fingered Megaera, Angelo's wife. Although he may have been adopted, or otherwise acquired, these three, Olympias, Mata, and Medea, came to consider themselves half-sisters of Etzel Sangati, Count Molech, -- the very man Rings wanted Ryne to kill!
<<"Ryne will accept the Tantaluses, Agenor,">> Zeross told the real leader of the band, Agenor Heliopolis, Roxanne's twenty years older brother, in their native Greek. Heliopolis was engaged to and fully intended to marry Bright Face when she reached eighteen the following year, -- this with Angelo's complete blessing.
<<"We'll make the final arrangements tomorrow morning in his hotel room upstairs. Unfortunately the Great Man is loathe to participate in, how shall I put this?, any of our other ventures.">>
<<"Your family's fortune shall suffice, Angelo. I have looked after it as well as I shall look after your precious sister. There was no need to speak with the patriarch. Unless of course you had ventures of your own in mind.">>
<<"He is unwilling to participate in them either.">><<"And nor should he. Bright Face is safe.">>
<<"Just marry her. Tonight. Right now.">>
<<"I have a certain amount of honour left in me, Angelo. When she is of age, we shall indeed wed. But on Trigon, in Greece, in Minoa. Not here in this god-forsaken country full of superstitious Catholics and fascists like this Papa Rafe you kowtow to all the time like some kind of a Taoist Toad!">>
<<"That's not fair. He is our host, an influential man not only in this country but within its religious community and the Alliance of Man itself. Your agents, the likes Akragas Sian and Idomeneus Pelorus, rely on his good auspices to operate.">>
<<"Yet we are our own men, our own women. We are not afraid of being just that. Ours is the cause of pure freedom, Ringkeeper. You taught me that, -- yet you're forever forgetting it.">>
<<"You are sure you can protect her?">>
<<"She is under my aegis,">> Heliopolis laughed at that, a chilling sound if there was one. Agenor may well be the most dangerous man in the world.
<<"Literally! Don't believe me? Come, let me prove it. Alex, Rox, Meg, Artemis, Nester, the rest of you, let's be off. Get the Sians and bring our Cousin Scatterbrain along too. He may be a young fool but he's good with guns when he concentrates. He and Alorstro shall have first crack at me.">>
The two Sians, father Akragas and Summoning-Aged son Alorstro, were ethnically connected to the Greeks. The former was not at the gathering but the latter was so, after collecting him up, they, the Etocretan extremists, and a number of their gypsy-born relatives left the reception hall. Among those who saw them go were Hulga Faust, who preferred to call herself Volsung, and Etzel Sangati. It was the Volsung matriarch who checked her watch.
"It's hours until midnight, Count," she said to her anticipated benefactor in English. "Where are they off to in such a hurry?"
"Some take longer to get themselves organized than we do, dear cousin. Perhaps I should be off as well." He kissed her on the back of her hand. "See you at breakfast."
"Would that you just gave me my last kiss."
"Eos the Dawn shall continue to greet you, lovely lady. When my son is born then, and only then, shall I grant you the kiss you so desire."
"Have I displeased you that much?"
"The Hoard was not as advertised, that is undeniably true. Ordinarily I would be obliged to extract retribution in the proverbial pound of flesh. However, your son-in-law has been attempting to make amends for your error ever since I brought it to his attention a couple of months ago."
"I'm sure von Alp feels he is doing more than making amends."
"What he feels is hardly relevant."
"No, I guess not."
"Oh, I suppose it was not altogether your fault, dear lady," Sangati granted, about as magnanimously as he ever did. "All this Kriemhild Nibelung, Attila the Hun stuff happened fifteen hundred years ago. Thus, even if it was given under mistaken assumptions, my oath to you remains as inviolable as ever."
"Your sisters said it would be."
"My sisters are Korants, we Mithrants' ever-devoted women. No more, no less. No more than you, howsoever exalted your status among them becomes, are either. You'd do well to remember that. However, though I've no need to do so, I'll say it again, -- I do not blame you for any of this. If anyone, I blame myself."
"I find your generosity very nearly overwhelming."
"As you should," he allowed.
"If we can pass to this other matter, this regenerative business, I have heard tell of your ring. Can it not do as I desire?"
"There are rings and there are rings, cousin. Though this one was indeed once Solomon's, it contains none his fabled wisdom. Besides, to the best of mine, Ogier's, the one you are no doubt referring to, is a myth. Seek counsel in my sisters by Rhea. That is my best advice and all I will say on that score. Until morning."
"Freya is yours, would you have her. She is everything you want: a virgin, a Summoning Child, of your blood and of mine. She knows the consequences of mating with you and is prepared to take the risk you may not be there when she gives birth. What more could you desire?"
"Even if you wished to trick a trickster, you would have to do better than that, Hulga. I am no trickster and the one I shall take unto myself come tomorrow night is much closer to my blood than your Freya will ever be."
"Agenor is next to you in Mithras, cousin. He will never let you have Argiope."
"Cease your beggarly prattling, Hag of the Volsungs. Since nearly the day of my birth, we have been bloodbrothers, -- our fathers, both of whom, as you well know, died during the Summoning, made us so. He would no more harm me than I would harm him. Despite what you and her siblings might believe, I have neither desires for nor designs upon Argiope of the Zerosses.
"I have been promised a much closer tie, -- by no less a personage than the Mithraic Master Magus himself. You shall have my kiss when my son is born. Seek forever young elsewhere. All I can ever give you is forever undying. And, even with the gift, you must be single-minded, hard-hearted, vicious, and unyielding in order to thrive let alone survive."
"As you are?"
"As I am, -- yes. During the day as well!"
Although at first hesitant, two Cretans, Dicta Udaeus and Idomeneus Pelorus, both wearing dark glasses, finally opened up with a pump shotgun and an American-Made Thompson submachine gun. The discharges bounced off his shield and suit of silver armour as the goatskin-caped, brilliantly glowing man advanced towards them. When their weapons were empty, they scampered away.
Two other men, slightly younger ones, a Corinthian and a Sicilian, Apsyrtus Annulis and Alorstro Sian, Summoning Children the pair of them and both wearing tinted filter-masks, took their place. The first grenade was filled with mustard gas. It exploded but the man in the bodysuit and dauntingly demonic-looking helmet kept on coming.
Apsyrtus, Medea's son, tossed a concussive grenade. This rocked the armoured man but only slowed him down for a few seconds. He levitated, towards the roof of the warehouse.
No, not levitated. Flew, -- on winged sandals!
In the open air, under a dark, cloud-covered sky, the man pulled a spear out of the long quiver on his back. This he banged against the shield, which, being left-handed, he wore on his right arm. The Night Sky darkened even further. An electric nimbus shrouded the man. He pointed his spear and a bolt of lightning blazed into the roof, destroying a chimney.
Not far from where he struck, a woman appeared as if out of nowhere. She had a long range sharpshooter's rifle, took careful aim, and shot off one of the four talarial wings on the man's sandals. Another shot rang out, not from the woman but from her husband on a rooftop across the alley.
The bullet hit the levitating but already unbalanced man in the hand holding the spear. It fell out of his grip and the man himself tumbled onto the warehouse roof. The armour somehow cushioned his landing and he rolled towards the woman. Strapped to both his wrists were boxes not much bigger than cigarette packages. From one shot some kind of dart but the woman vanished.
Another woman, this one the man's sister, a Summoning Child unlike him or the two sharpshooters, appeared. Hot Rox had Italian-Made pistols, 9mm Berettas, in either hand. He spotted her in time and fired a dart from his other wrist weapon. It went straight through his sister, who was seemingly still there but obviously was not, -- not entirely.
Then Roxanne was beside him, along with her husband whose silver-gloved hand she was holding. Alexandros pounced. With his Stopstone hands, both of which were now glowing almost as brightly as the silver armour his brother-in-law wore, he grabbed the anarchist's shield by its edges, pressed it against his chest and, as if it was silly putty or a thin sheet of tin, caused it to wrap around his upper body.
Agenor Heliopolis, the one underneath, still had his legs and one arm free. He got one of his legs between the upper man's thighs and flipped Alex over his head. Rolling over, he was on his feet in an instant. The man he had dumped had already encased himself in something similar, though not as well-formed as his armour. Another dart was in its wrist launcher. This he fired but it did not penetrate his brother-in-law's suddenly-manifest cocoon.
Then his sister was beside him again. She clutched his wrist and his whole arm vanished, -- although he could still feel it. The other woman, the sharpshooter, came visible. Two shots later, the bolts that held his visor in place were blown off. Her husband from the building rooftop across the way fired a third one. It hit him square in the forehead, dazing him.
Then his visor fell off and his sister said, "Bang, Bang, out go the lights. And your eyes, Agenor. At the minimum!"
A half second later, both sharpshooters were on the rooftop, the woman holding hubby's hand. The man smiled. "Good shit that, cousin. But I could have taken you with just my rifle."
"He's right, Heliopolis," said the female sharpshooter. "I could have done it too, -- without my menstrual stones."
"And I'm not much more than a Sorcerer's Apprentice, boyo," said his brother-in-law, hauling himself to his feet. "Not even a Summoning Child who's had a child. No telling what Rox could have done if she put her mind to it." He gripped the shield that was bent around his brother-in-law's upper body and reshaped it enough to free him.
"It still took eight of you, if you count the four down below. I could have killed them with my darts. And they did have to resort to heavier armaments as we thought they would."
"And the aegis did seal itself," Hot Rox, called that because she was an Afrite, said in defense of her brother. "The gas didn't get to him."
"But the grenade rocked him," pointed out her husband.
"And smoke is not necessarily all Uncle Etzel can become, Alex," noted a woman, Alex's sister, as she materialized herself like some of the others had, as if out of nowhere. She was holding hands with yet another man, her husband, the female sharpshooter's elder brother, none other than Ringleader.
"I say it's not good enough to protect Bright Face. I say we do as Angelo and Magister Mandam advised. Deliver the Tantalus to Charan's son, to Abe Ryne. Let the patriarch play god instead of taking it on ourselves. Let the Great Man deal with Grandmother Rhea's finger-eating Maker as he sees fit."
"Etzel is one of my oldest friends, Megaera," argued Agenor Heliopolis. "He has been my bloodbrother since well before the Summoning. I cannot help but think that whatever he did to you last summer on Trigon, that whatever else he can do, be it as base, as plain evil, as most of you witches believe, he is on our side. I hold we continue to frustrate him, for just one more night, then seek to turn him and his djinn to our cause."
"I should have shot you between the eyes," said the male sharpshooter, Nester Hyperenor. "Instead of just in your Gorgoneion's forehead. Might have finally knocked some sense into you."
"If you wanted to, you would have."
"Bah! Your loyalty should be to people like Sagitta and myself, to Pops Polyps, Dicta, Idomeneus, Akragas, Talos Melicertes, Doc Jay and others who fought beside you in Spain and will again in Greece. Not to a cowardly con-man like Count Counterfeit, who's afraid to hold a gun for fear it might go off accidentally."
"Careful, cousin," warned Megaera Four-Fingers. All the Etocretans tended to refer to each other as cousins, -- mostly because, one way or another, they were. "I got my name from a Fury."
"And I got mine from a wise man," countered Hyperenor, who very nearly rivalled Djinn in terms of size. "Mark me: guns, and people who know how to use them, are all our cause needs. Even if they think we're going to use them against the Heathen Turk, the Sicilians, young Sian's father, Papa Rafe, and their connections, are providing us guns aplenty. Why piss them off unnecessarily?"
He was right of course. Then again, he was equally well-aware that Heliopolis, like him and most of the rest of their fellows in the Black Rose, or Malanthean, core-cadre of anarchists, had about as much use for religious crusaders like Raphael D'Angelo as they had for spent cartridges.
"You start prancing about in crap from that Fish-Witch's Sea Chest and you'll become Target Number One. Eventually someone will get as lucky as I am good."
"Listen to Nester," pleaded Ringleader, Megaera's husband. "If Roxanne disavows going into her disembodiment, living ghost routine again, and promises not to reach inside it, I'll lock our Tantalus tighter than Argiope's Holy Hymen. And I'll give the Signet Rings to the patriarch. So will Meg and Alex's Uncle Etzel, -- the treasury Djinn found for him in the Rhine. We'll make sure of that."
"I'm good with words. I'll talk him into it."
"You'd have better luck with Djinn."
"Then I'll talk him into it too. Ask yourself this, -- why wouldn't Sangati do as I recommend? He can't use what's in his and we don't need what's in ours."
"Need, no, -- but to give up what Fate's as good as delivered our way; worse, to give it over to Abe Ryne. Well, if that isn't tempting you know what, then I don't what is."
"Now who's double-talking, Agenor? Our cause is just. 'Rta', 'Asha', 'Arta'; the Truth, the Right Way, the Cosmic Order, as the Magister always says, must win out. And in our lifetimes, before the Millennium. Otherwise Chaos shall rule anew."
"You're the philosopher, Angie."
"And you're what, -- the nodding nabob of nonsense. Get smart, cousin. Dragon Joe also says Chaos is jumping the gun by sixty years. Mandam should know. He's the one who says he know Chaos intimately. And I for one believe him."
"You would. Chaos is a concept, not an entity."
"Maybe so, but I have the keys. I am the Ringleader, not just the Rings' Keeper. And I would lead us all to safety. Go, Agenor, -- return to Minoa. You already have what you want. I'm sure Etzel shall have what he desires ditto. Djinn'll see to that, if no one else will. I imagine he can be very convincing."
"My bloodbrother would force no one. Nor would he countenance any forcing of anyone to his benefit. He isn't me."
"Right you are as usual," said Zeross, cleverly, almost yawningly, winning his word-game battle yet again. "And right you would be as well to take Argiope with you back home. Bright Face loves you like no other. There is no need to take any unnecessary chances for any of our sakes. Just put everything back where it belongs before you go."
"I have no use for pacifist wordsmiths like you, Angie," Agenor stated. "I would have all the weapons I can at my disposal. But I shall do as you say, -- after tomorrow night!"
"Because tomorrow night your precious bloodbrother will be in the gravest danger he has been for a hundred moons."
"Just so," Heliopolis smiled accordance, a warning signal if there was one. "Your beguiling sister as well, Rings." The anarchist redirected his attention to the biggest bastard of all the Etocretan bastards, Nester Hyperenor, the Silver Arrow Assassin best known as Sagittarius. "We've enough time before we're due out on the old Appian Way to go through it again, Hype."
"Not if I don't load blanks, we don't"
"Do as you please. This time it's you against me. We shall see how you, with your ordinary weapons, fare against me, -- armed as I am with the Treasury of Olympus!"
"Best say your prayers then."
"You know I don't pray, Archer. And I know you don't miss."
"Then I'll be the one praying, -- that there's a first time!"
The Witches of Weir, many, myriad, and mostly myrionymous, were all over Rome this night. Actually, properly speaking, there was only one witch born in Weir that night in Rome. As for being myrionymous her primary name, what given name she had, was Kanin Nauroz. She no more used it nowadays than the two other, mostly human, witches with her did theirs, though.
One of them was a Summoning Child, Solace Sunrise. The other was Scylla Nereid, an exotic if ever there was one. It was the latter, not much older than a Summoning Child, who had located the Mithraic Treasury of the Olympian Gods they had just seen, from a safe distance between-space, Agenor Heliopolis put into action.
It was the former who spoke however.
"I can't believe the Magister wants to play it this way, Granny." She was addressing the one-time Kanin Nauroz.
"And I can't believe I turned the tuna-Tantalus over to them."
"Yet you did, Fish," said Granny, -- Fish being Fisherwoman, Scylla Nereid. "And, yes, Sorciere, that's the way Dragon Joe wants the game played." Sorciere was Sunrise whereas the Magister and Dragon Joe referred to the same man, Joseph Mandam, the Mithrants' real Pope. At least out here.
"Surely that's obvious. Despite the good intentions of so many of our sisters in more than just Flowery Anthea, and even a few of our more noble-minded, albeit mercantile brothers in Xuthros Hor, war this side of Cathonia would seem inevitable. What men would start, maybe only gods can stop."
"Yeah, sure," scoffed Sorciere. "More likely all the would-be war mongers out here, beyond the Dome, would get together and try to wipe out these newfangled Olympians and Aesgardians."
"At least they'd be united, neophyte."
"Hey, I'm no neophyte. A neolithic, -- well, maybe!"
"Haddock-hold on, avian!" snapped Fisherwoman, an aquatic who generally didn't snap so much as chomp. Ergo, Fish had just detected some serious whaledreck. "What the halibut happened there?"
"She's right," squawked Granny. "Heliopolis is down!"
Agenor was indeed down, -- the periphery of his Aegis shot to shreds --, but not out. It wasn't that Hyperenor had cheated so much as switched ammunition. Not even that. Silver Arrow Assassins always played fair. Only killed when they were paid to do so.
"Good thing we didn't bet," said Nester, as he helped Heliopolis to his feet yet again.
"Early days yet, Sagittarius!"
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