by Jean Marie Ward
The end came not with a bang or a whimper, but a knock on the wall.
There wasn't any door. I hadn't needed one since I closed my office in Cumae two thousand years ago. I worked out of my home at the end of the old wyrm hole leading from Lake Averno. The first leg of the passage was claustrophobic enough to keep the tourists away. The chalky underground stream the locals called the River Styx and the sizzling mud pots masquerading as hellfire took care of the thrill-seekers. Anything more and I risked scaring the paying customers -- something that would never do. I wasn't in the prophecy business for my health, after all.
The fate knocking on my wall hadn't come to buy anything. Even though he was short, stooped and didn't have nearly enough shoulders for the job, there was something about the way his eyes glittered beneath the lantern on his plastic helmet that screamed "dragon killer." It was funny -- his cheap suit and the horn-rimmed glasses only reinforced the impression.
"Demophile Cumae!" the man called. "There's no point trying to hide. We know you're in here."
The words ricocheted through the mountain's interlocking caverns until they circled the core and bit him from behind. He jumped three feet straight up, but when his feet hit the ground again, they stayed put.
The rock in which I rested settled with an almost human sigh. I hate the ones who can't take a hint. Contrary to the rumors, knight-errant is not my favorite dish.
I drew my bones from the limestone cave and clothed them in living metal. I reared before him, the Great Serpent of Vesuvius, guardian of the Compania and its Burning Fields, incandescent with the power of the magma around which I coiled.
"Who seeks the Sibyl of Cumae?" I thundered pouring light and heat through my scales until the pitted walls of my lair blazed diamond-bright.
The intruder's lips thinned. He shoved a pair of polarized shades over his glasses and turned off the lamp on his helmet. "Antonio Lignelli, Minestero della Finanze. I've come about the Sibyl's back taxes."
"What foolishness is this?" I roared in my best dragon-speak. It's not the way I normally talk, but people expect it with the light show and sound effects. "The Sibyl of Cumae is not subject to your petty, mortal tithes. It is to me the people of Campania owe their gifts. To me they bring their oxen, their gold, their inconvenient virgins yearning to break free."
"How very interesting. We'll get back to you later. At the moment, my business is with the Cumaean Sibyl. Where is she?" He cocked his head. "Did you eat her?"
"Foolish man, I am Sibylla Cumani, Sibyl of Cumae!" My voice belled through the rock. The mountain trembled and leaves of the fruit trees in the hillside orchards rattled like old bones.
"Your name's Sibylla Cumani, not Demophile, AKA Amalthea?" Lignelli swung his attache case onto a conveniently low stalagmite, sprang the locks, and raised the screen on a computer set into the body of the case. After he tapped a few keys, a complicated, official-looking form appeared on the screen.
"Identification per the Campania Regional Office, I should've known," he said. "Screwed up the directions too. Wonder what else they neglected to tell us.
"Are you Demophile's heir? Did you inherit all of her estate?" he asked out of the side of his mouth.
"I am Demophile, Amalthea and Deiphobe too." My laughter rang like brass against the glittering chamber. He didn't even notice. "I am the fiery blood of the Campania, the richness of her fields, the -- "
"Deiphobe? The same one who was Aeneas's guide to the underworld? That would make you..." Lignelli's fingers flew over the keyboard. The number on the screen made him whistle and take a small step backward -- not from me, from the computer. "Four thousand years old. So much for the inheritance angle, but there's still the interest on the Cumaean Sibyl's unpaid sales tax...
"You are the Cumaean Sibyl who sold the last king of Rome the so-called Sibylline Oracles in 510 BC?" he demanded.
I smiled, drawing back my lips from teeth that would've done a Tyrannosaur proud. But that wasn't the scary part. The scary part was what emerged from the mouth behind those teeth -- the thin, toothless grumble of every man's aged mother-in-law.
"Tarquin Superbus? Pah! That no-good punk. I told his father the boy would be the death of him, but did he listen? No! Now his grandfather, Tarquin Priscus, there was a man! He knew three talents for three books of oracles was better than three talents for one. Of course, he could've had all nine, but what do you expect from a man, eh?" I lifted foreclaws and shoulders in a massive shrug.
"Tarquin Priscus paid you three talents of gold for the Sibylline Oracles? That's nearly two hundred pounds of gold! And the sale took place sixty years earlier than we calculated. That changes everything." Lignelli attacked his keyboard again. "Forget the inheritance tax, you owe the Italian government eight hundred eighty-three thousand, nine hundred seventy octillion lira!"
"The national debt, it's gone! We can buy America!" He giggled like a madman and ran towards me, arms outstretched to embrace the hundred feet of me he could see. With a shriek that shifted tectonic plates all the way to Cremona, I sprang out of reach.
"Where's your treasury? I have a convoy in the passage waiting to carry the gold to the ministry's vaults in Rome. It isn't big enough, but we've got other vaults, every place except Calabria, but it wouldn't be safe in Calabria anyway," Lignelli gabbled.
Convoy? I hadn't heard any convoy. I hadn't felt any convoy. And the sum he gave me made no sense. "Forget the lira. How much gold are you talking about in pounds and ounces?" I asked when I could get a word in edgewise.
"Roughly four times the amount in Fort Knox."
"There's not that much gold in all of Europe!" I sputtered, igniting a shower of red sparks in the air over his head. Lignelli started to argue. "I don't have it," I hissed.
"What have you been doing with the gold all these years? Sitting on it?"
The set of his mouth would've curdled dried milk. "I suppose you also had it smelted into rods just to make sure they didn't cheat you," he jeered.
"That would've defeated my purpose. I needed gold coins, shaped and stamped by human hands. But they didn't have enough. So the women of Rome gave me their jewels."
Beneath his shades, pallor rolled down Lignelli's face like white paint down a tempered wall. "Two hundred pounds of three thousand year old coins? Etruscan jewelry... You didn't take it apart?"
I didn't dignify that remark with a reply. Devising one would've distracted me too much from a more important task -- finding Lignelli's companions and learning why I hadn't sensed their presence the minute they hit the beach at Lake Averno.
This had never been a problem when your average dragon hunter came steel-plated dragging his grandfather's sword behind him. Earth magic abhors iron, and volcanoes are as magical as earth can get. In 1944, when the tanks and planes and the steel-cased bombs of the Allied and Axis armies got a little too close, the whole mountain blew. Worst eruption in three hundred years, and there was nothing I could do to stop it, no matter how tightly I wrapped myself around the blowpipe.
But using the walls of the Averno passage as my "eyes," I understood why the mountain failed to react this time. Lignelli's army marched in plastic boots, carrying ceramic guns. They even drove fiberglass cars. The mountain read their gear as reconstituted dirt. The steel-cased shells in the soldiers' assault rifles, hand-held rocket launchers and other heavy artillery promised to be another matter, however.
The soldier with the most brass on his collar murmured into a microphone trailing from his night vision goggles.
"Roger," Lignelli said into the side of his helmet. "Sibylla Cumani, are you going to pay your debts now, or do I have to use force?"
"I can show you my gold, but I can't give it to you. And you'd better tell your men to keep their fingers away from their triggers. If anything made of steel breaches these walls, a cave-in's the best thing that could happen."
"Is that your final word on the subject?"
"For the love of Gaia," I said under my breath.
"That's it!" Lignelli shouted. "Men, deploy!"
I don't suppose any one of them realized how silly they looked jogging into my cavern, taking aim at a seven-story dragon with pop guns about half the size of her pinky claw. Lignelli yapped about my obligation to the Italian nation, while the soldier with the brass grunted the order to "Arm!"
Just before they were ready to fire, I exploded my corporeal form in a geyser of flame. Soldiers and taxman staggered back. Lignelli threw up his arm to shield his double-glazed eyes.
While the men tried to deal with the strobe effect and the flash-burned coatings of their goggles, I adjusted the luminosity of the cavern to show my new self to best advantage. True to type, everyone ignored me, blinking unevenly at the ceiling where my head used to be.
Lignelli caught on first. His gaze shifted lower, lower, lower, until it rested on a head of Titan curls almost level with his own, a perfect oval face, and a pair of long-lashed eyes the golden hazel beloved by Botticelli. Then he noticed my equally perfect body was perfectly nude. Lignelli gulped and hurriedly glanced back at my face. Dragon killers are such prudes.
"You've made your point, gentlemen," I purred, giving my head a little toss. Several of the soldiers craned their necks so far in my direction they fell over. "You want to see my treasure, follow me."
I kept my gold in an obsidian-faced chamber about the size of an Olympic swimming pool. We entered from the top, walking down a gentle ramp into a well of burnished coins and sparkling gems that lapped around our legs like water. The contrast between the gleaming black satin glass and the glittering yellow of the hoard increased the magic of the scene. It reminded me of the sun's corona dancing against the darkness of the void. But a safe sun, cool and welcoming to the touch.
It usually took a while for guests to appreciate the effect. Solid objects didn't flow around people in the outer world. Outside my mountain, gold, silver, even the winking gems of a queen's parure stay where one puts them. Lifeless.
Lignelli hesitated an instant when a swell of coins clattered against his pant legs. But a crusader's fervor possessed him. He whipped off his shades and replaced them in the inside pocket of his jacket with a decisive snap.
The professional soldiers stepped more warily. They strained to keep as much distance as possible between themselves and my hoard, as if it was infected with some horrible disease. The gold shifted away from their feet and swirled around me as they moved around the room.
Eventually it sank in that the gold neither bruised nor buried me. A few of the braver ones eased back their useless helmets to get a better view.
"What are you waiting for? Get on with it," Lignelli said. "Everything needs to be transferred to the depositories as quickly as possible."
The officer removed his helmet and scratched his head. "How? We've got pallets to transport gold bars, not... this."
Lignelli added another score of curses to Campania Regional's account as four of the soldiers swayed toward the inviting gold.
"Ah, Lieutenant, Sir, maybe we could carry a little bit out in our helmets," one the soldiers said. "Just to give the ministry an idea of what kind of chests we need."
Just to lose a little of it in the lining of our suits, he meant, and the taxman knew it.
"You'll do nothing of the kind!" Lignelli spat. "The Minestero della Finanze will need a complete accounting of every scrap in this room in order to make a proper assessment against Signora Cumani's taxes."
"That could be rather difficult," I laughed. Lignelli's gaze jerked back to me. Directly behind him, a soldier neatly palmed a pearl brooch once worn by a Byzantine empress. Small coins began disappearing into pockets that had been zipped tight only a minute before.
"Establishing the value of this -- " I lobbed a medal designed by Cellini into the befuddled lieutenant's hands. "Or this -- " a gold stater celebrating the deification of Alexander the Great winged towards the brooch thief " -- could take years. And Italy can't afford the interest on this loan."
"Italy can't afford you squatting on your back taxes. We need this gold to bolster the lira before the European Community issues its new currency. Without it, our economy will collapse!"
"Which economy?" I asked. "The one you tax or the one people actually live on? I need this gold to control Vesuvius, which is a lot more important than all the lira in Rome. Trust me, that's just paper.
"Gold is a very different medium of exchange. It's the reason I can talk and think like you. I'm a part of Vesuvius," I extended my right hand. An orange glow poured from the "bones," transforming the flesh into rocks melting in a lava stream. "For eons I was as wild and monstrous as the volcano itself. Then one day, some part of me touched gold shaped by human hands."
I clenched the liquefying rocks, and my hand regained the semblance of coral-tinted flesh. "Gold is like butter. It absorbs the essence of everything it touches and gives it back again. When I touched human gold, I experienced humanity. The more gold people brought to the volcano, the more human I became, until I found myself warning them of eruptions. And trying to control them," I admitted sheepishly.
"Tell that to the king whose city you bankrupted," Lignelli sneered.
"I did, and his wife gave me this!" I lifted a necklace of tri-colored gold hung with carnelians and pearls above my head. "This is Tanaquil," I said, "Tarquin's queen. She was vain and ambitious, and preferred to rule the stockyards of Rome than serve in the stone mansions of Eturia.
"She was terrified of fire and of me. But she knew what I could do for Rome. She was the one who persuaded Tarquin to meet my price before it was too late." I smiled at the memory of the queen laying her jewels at my feet. She tried so hard not to scuttle for cover when I bent to examine them, never knowing how deeply she imprinted her every thought and fear in her gold.
"Crap," Lignelli said.
I turned my wrist, admiring the way the braided strands of pink, white and yellow gold slithered around my arm. "Tell that to your troops."
Lignelli wheeled. By now, most of the soldiers were up to their elbows in gold. A few enterprising individuals were using their helmets to shovel coins and small gems down the front of their uniforms. Cortez faced the same problem the first time his soldiers invaded Mexico City. There was too much gold not to take some, and their commander was in no condition to stop them.
But I retained complete control of my gold. At my command, it ebbed and swelled unobtrusively around the taxman's army. Soon, when the oily scent of gold filled their nostrils, when the solid chink of coin against coin was all they heard, my wealth would suck them under and smother them. Human greed always was my best defense.
Another soldier shrugged out of his rifle harness to make room for more gold. Lignelli grabbed the soldier's wrists as they plunged into the loot. "Put that back!" Lignelli barked. "This gold belongs to the people of Italy."
The younger man kicked the side of Lignelli's knee and casually crushed the taxman's shoe with his boot. Lignelli screamed and fell back. "I'm the people of Italy," the soldier said. "Go find your own."
Lignelli scrabbled for the rifle and brought it up under the soldier's chin. "Empty your pockets, Soldier. Now!"
No, I said.
The soldier started to turn away.
Lignelli fired. A burst of steel-cased bullets tore through the soldier's neck and splintered the wall behind him. Giant fissures screeched up the glass, branching like veins across the vaulted ceiling. Flakes of obsidian, sharp as razors, rained over the men. Discarded weapons seemed to fly into the soldiers' hands, all of them trained on Lignelli. The taxman moaned at the sight of the body at his feet. His arms shook, and his hand convulsively squeezed off another round.
Bullets, rockets, small missiles, and things I cannot even name blasted flesh and glass and igneous rock all the way to the mountain's roiling magma core. The volcano roared. A giant mushroom cloud of ash erupted from the crater. Lava spewed from conduits even I had forgotten. From Avellino to the Bay of Naples, the earth shuddered at the mountain's rage.
The first explosion propelled me outward on a river of lava. I rode the fire until it breached the surface and threw myself against the dissolving hillside. I buried my talons into the gelid rocks, straining my coils to their limit in a desperate attempt to contain the uncontrollable. I don't know how long I struggled or how long I lay unconscious afterwards, my ashes indistinguishable from the powdery earth.
The air stank of sulfur and charcoal when I woke. I understand the smell hung around for months. So did the high clouds of ash that stained the sky and gave new meaning to the phrase "summer cold." Crops rotted in the fields. Famine and economic catastrophe added to the deaths caused by the eruption itself.
I was still human enough to care. By some miracle, I never let go of Tanaquil's necklace, leaving my reason more or less intact. The "less" worried me. My hoard had melted into the mountain -- the wisdom and folly of all those precious souls lost to me forever. Only Tanaquil remained, her essence woven in a ribbon of gold. But strong as her presence was, one 2,600-year-old soul was not enough. If I wanted to remain the conscience of Vesuvius, I needed new gold, and I needed it fast.
A nondescript woman in a cheap, dark suit pressed her ID card against the window of the guardhouse at the gate of the Capri hideaway of the current boss of bosses. The man sitting behind the bullet-proof glass couldn't put his finger on it, but something about the woman's pale-eyed glare, the way she never seemed to blink, made the sweat pop from his forehead.
"She says she's with the Minestero della Finanze," he rumbled into the telephone. "She says it's about the boss's back taxes, but she's not on the list. I thought the Regional Office wasn't supposed to send anybody here who wasn't on the list..."
The guard accidentally looked into the woman's straw-colored eyes again. The pupils weren't round. They were black gashes that ran from the top of her irises to the bottom. Like a snake's.
"The name?" he repeated numbly. He squinted at the small print on her card. "Sibylla Cumani. Sir, I really don't think she's one of ours."
Originally published in The Orphic Chronicle, August 1999.
© Jean Marie Ward 1999-2007