The names in this story are of Celtic origin and so can be unintelligible to the average English-speaker. As such, I take pity on you, the reader, and save myself the trouble of doing so later on after you flood me with e-mails asking how to pronounce the names. Here is a pronunciation guide for this story.
Caitlain (kāt-lăn/ kāt-lawn)
Cathrach Dorcha (käth-räkh dor-chä/kăth-răk dor-chă)
They watched him out of the corners of their eyes as he stalked up to the sheet covered lump in the middle of the rain-slick pavement, his long, black coat and hood being tugged by the wind whistling between the three-story buildings. The stench of putrid garbage and rotting flesh was a miasma almost thick enough to cut with a knife. Add in the other scents of stale vomit, urine, and the kimchi from the Korean Restaurant that made up the western wall of the alley and you had to blink pretty fast to keep your eyes from watering. Everyone was breathing through their mouths and taking shallow breaths. And despite that, they all watched him warily.
He would have smiled to himself if he were here for work. They were reacting to him on a subconscious level and probably could not tell you why he gave them the willies, even if they knew why he was there.
And then he was at the sheet. It had been white when they placed it, but now most of it was the deep, deep red of a spilt life. He had seen enough of these scenes that it would normally be nothing for him to be there. He was used to seeing the results of crime and, as a reporter for the Cathrach Dorcha News' crime desk, he thought he had seen everything. Until he got the call that night.
He knew the detective at his shoulder well; a tall, burly man with salt and pepper hair, merry green eyes that were cheerless, and a clean shaven face with its share of wrinkles after twenty-five years in the Cathrach Dorcha PD. He nodded brusquely at the coroner's assistant who lifted the corner of the sheet just enough to show the once beautiful face and coppery hair now a grimace of frozen horror and pain and rain-wet hair the color of dried blood. That there was so much blood in the alley told them that she was dead only a few hours, since the rain had come with sunset and dawn was hours to go. He stepped forward and lifted the sheet farther and saw the raw meat mess the killer left of his sister, only leaving the face and neck unmarked. It was a scene he had seen twice in the last month.
"And you know no more tonight than you did three weeks ago or ten days ago?" he asked the detective who was using every ounce of will power to hold himself together. He was present at Caitlain's birth, her christening, her confirmation, and both her wedding and divorce.
Detective Sean Cassidy could look no more upon the body of his goddaughter and so only shook his head as he turned his back on the body. "Nothing," he rasped, his breath shuddering as he came close to falling apart and the sheet was laid back across her face. "The sicko doesn't have a pattern other than picking pretty, young woman. The ages are a decade apart, the features are random, the areas they live are different, and, until tonight, we had no overlapping shopping or living habits. The first victim also worked at the Cathrach Dorcha University, but then so do fifteen thousand other citizens of our fair city. As far as we know from talking to friends of the first girl, Caitlain and Maeve MacShane never crossed paths. MacShane was part of the housekeeping staff in the female dorms while Caty was an assistant professor."
The detective covered a sob with a cough, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping his eyes and nose. "We don't know yet. Last anyone saw her was when she left the university at five. She doesn't have a boyfriend, so that is out, and her ex is still in Dorcha State finishing his fifteen-to-life."
The other man tugged his hood closer and shoved his hands into his pockets. "He will kill again, Sean," he whispered direly. "He will do this again and unless he fucks up, he will keep doing it."
"The FBI thinks he will screw up and make a mistake, Seosamh," Sean said earnestly, trying not to sound like he was more convincing himself than comforting a crime victim's brother.
"The FBI thinks he will screw up ... eventually," Seosamh replied sourly, turning away from the sheet-covered lump to glare at his uncle.
Cassidy looked shocked. "How do you know that is what they said?" he demanded.
Seosamh simply smiled mysteriously, his eyes bleak. "I have my sources, Uncle Sean," was his snide reply as he looked down at what remained of his big sister, the person he loved most in this world, and the icy anger spread to engulf him. "Let me know when I can make arrangements for the ... you know." With that he walked away, ignoring whatever it was Detective Cassidy was saying.
"Mr. O'Niall, Mr. O'Niall!"
"Seosamh, Seosamh! Is it true that this latest victim is your sister, Dr. Caitlain O'Niall?"
"Do you have anything to say to the killer, Seosamh?"
He normally was contemptuous of those who scorned what the media did, those who considered them nothing but vultures, feeding on the carrion of society. As he looked up at his colleagues, some of whom he had considered friends, with eyes dangerous enough to shut them up and make them step back, the thought that perhaps those people were correct flitted through his brain. There were a score of his fellow reporters, all with cameras and microphones pointed at him with breathless anticipation, nothing at all on their eager faces to suggest that they had even considered that his lovely, vivacious sister was lying mangled in the alley behind him.
Brushing past them all, Seosamh strode to his car, silence reigning behind him.
It was a long drive to his condo. Longer than he could ever remembering it being. There was nobody to call. Caitlain and Uncle Sean were all he had in the world and one of them was dead and the other would be sidelined because he was related to the third victim, despite the fact that he was one of the best detectives CDPD had. And there was little hope he would not be reading about another victim in a week or so. And a week or so after that. This particular sicko had visited four other cities, each one had no fewer than sixteen victims before the killing stopped and another city was chosen to play host to some of the most vicious murders the FBI had seen. The task force had arrived last week, after it was confirmed that victim number two was killed by the same guy who did Maeve MacShane.
And nothing would be done. Caitlain would simply join the list of victims.
Seosamh could not... would not stand by and watch the bodies continue to drop and then let the bastard vanish again.
A screeching of tires on wet pavement, honking horns, and shouted curses greeted his decision as he turned around and headed for his priestess' house on the edge of Cathrach Dorcha. Behind that house was the grove that had been cared for since the founders of the city landed. The Catholics and Anglicans had followed, but the druids were still the power brokers of the city and the grove was the center of that power. Protected by magic and well-paid for federal laws, the grove was several acres of oak bordered by ash and hawthorn trees, the center of which was a clearing and spring that pooled and formed a stream that eventually ran down into the Hudson River. A large colonial mansion backed up onto the grove and was also protected by magic and state law, being on the historical registry.
The lights were all out but as he drove up the unpaved drive, the porch light went on and the door opened on a large man wearing a black loin cloth and holding a shillelagh. His chiseled features were grim and foreboding even as he turned his head back into the house and said something. More lights flared in the windows of the living room and one of the upstairs bedrooms.
Seosamh brought the car to a stop and was climbing out when a woman shrouded in a white, ankle-length robe appeared at the door behind the man, her fiery hair mussed. Just the sight of her eased the pain in his chest that he did not realize was there until it lessened.
"Seosamh," she said in her lyrical voice, tinged with a hint of Ireland, where she was born. "Oh, Seosamh, I cannot tell you how sorry I am."
That stopped Seosamh in his tracks. "You knew?" he demanded angrily, causing the man with the staff to step sideways, half blocking her.
"Arghus, gently," she murmured, laying a hand on his massively muscled arm and pushing him back out of her way. "I was awakened an hour or so ago. Arghus almost had me calm enough to sleep when he felt you coming. Niamh is getting the tea ready, come and tell us while we wait."
I told them what happened and what I knew about the serial killer. I was halfway through my story when Niamh came in with the tray of tea. She was Arghus' niece come from Ireland to learn from Airmeithinion, the most powerful druid priestess in North America. Niamh had the same raven hair as Arghus' brows but was spared his muscularly heavy frame. She had a grace and presence that made Seosamh sure she would take Airmeithinion's place when the priestess was called to her Goddess.
And it was her relationship to her Goddess that brought him to her home so late. When he finished telling them that Cathrach Dorcha was only the latest stop on this killer's path and that no city saw fewer than sixteen victims, they were all pale.
"I know what is in your heart and I can only caution you that what you ask is not done lightly," Airmeithinion warned grimly, her pale eyes flicking over to her black dog, her protector Arghus, who shook his head just as grimly. She sighed resignedly. "Niamh, go call the priests and warn them to bring their guardians. We may need them."
Seosamh sat in the living room and sipped his tea in silence, turning what he was about to do over in his mind, making sure his request was formed in the right way before it was made. Airmeithinion, Arghus, and Niamh were gathering supplies and changing into their robes when the first of the circle of priests arrived. Faol and her guardian were quickly followed by Aisling, Cynbel, Caiside, Macha, Siobhan, Kevan, and Nuallan and their guardians, making the house suddenly seem claustrophobic with the aggressively burly black dogs and the powerful priests moving around, awaiting Airmeithinion.
The High Priestess finally emerged from her bed room and came down the stair in her brilliantly white robe, Arghus following behind with a slim wooden case Seosamh had seen maybe three times since he became a member of this circle nearly ten years ago. Druids don't much care for killing to sacrifice, these days. They learned their lessons centuries ago. Feed a God on blood sacrifices and blood will be all the God demands. Nowadays, most druids have gotten their gods to be happy with first fruits or at most a freshly hunted deer or bear whereby the God gets more pleasure from the hunt itself than the eventual blood and meat garnered from said kill.
But some things still required blood. Human blood. Most of that blood was freely given and only punishments took it by force. Tonight, the blood would be given freely, with more to be gotten by force in the future. Celtic Gods were still fond of revenge and battle, after all.
Airmeithinion led them out of the house and into the woods along the well-worn path to the clearing several hundred feet into the oaks and hawthorns and ash. In the center of the clearing, beside the pile of rocks from which the spring bubbled, was a waist high block of granite covered in moss. It was here when the first druid found the grove a thousand years ago, long before Hudson even found his river. From that time, the druids of the northeastern part of North America had come to see this site as their holy land. A grove already waiting for them when they had fled the eventual subjugation and enslavement of Eire. It was here that this circle held their rites and it would be here that Seosamh O'Niall would ask for his vengeance.
"Form the circle, please. Seosamh, strip and in the center. You know the drill," Airmeithinion said sharply, a worried crease between her brows. "Black dogs, a step behind your charges, please. I am hoping you will not be needed, but I have never performed this particular rite myself so I would like to take this slowly and cautiously."
Seosamh stripped quickly, goose bumps springing up in the chill autumn air. He stepped between Faol and her cousin Nuallan, going to stand before the altar. Airmeithinion approached him, already chanting in rapid Gaelic. The air became thick, pressing down on him, constricting his lungs, making him feel faint.
"On the altar, Seosamh," Arghus said from outside the circle. "Quickly!"
The air in the clearing was pulsing now, pushing Seosamh back and onto the altar, forcing him onto his back with every beat. Airmeithinion approached him with the slim wooden case. From inside, she took a long, slim dagger whose blade was covered with Celtic runes. Before he could even flinch in defense, she had slashed him across the chest and each shoulder. When he brought his arms up in reflex, she slashed both forearms.
"Turn over onto your stomach," Arghus said, his voice tight with stress. "Seosamh, now!"
His mind slow with the pulse of magic and the loss of blood, Seosamh pushed himself over. The priestess quickly slashed his back, making him cry out in pain. With each slash, the magic became more urgent. Now, with his blood sheathing his arms and chest and trickling down his back and sides, he could feel the presence of something ... massive. An oppressive presence was suddenly with them in the clearing and he began to think that perhaps this was a bad idea.
"Oh, now you think it a bad idea?!" a booming male voice asked in something close enough to Gaelic that he understood it. "There are reasons we weaned you off of blood sacrifice, silly mortal. You are lucky that I have been waiting for this or I would make you and your foolish friends pay for this dearly, whether your priestess here is Airmid's daughter or not."
There was a gasp and the priestess was suddenly the focus of nine sets of eyes. And then they realized that there were more people in the clearing then when they started. A tall, muscular man who looked like he just came from a fancy dinner in an unbuttoned dress shirt and a pair of gray pants with polished alligator loafers and a suit jacket thrown over his shoulder was standing beside Airmeithinion, his fire red hair braided down his back and his curly beard suavely natural in its disorder.
Bright green eyes gazed down at Seosamh, his head shaking side to side. "I know your priestess was trying to summon Arawn, but I have been waiting for someone, anyone, to call on us for aid in this. I know this is a matter of death and vengeance, but it is too important to let him run wild with it. This is far beyond a matter of simply avenging your sister's death, however brutal," he declared flatly, his eyes fiery with passionate anger. "This savage is no mere serial killer, my son, and it will take a more-than-mortal agency to overcome him. And so, I have come to put you in the hands of the Morrigu. You interrupted a fairly important dinner, so I will let Morrigan explain."
Three women in armor and baring weapons appeared behind him, heightening the powerful presence. One was black haired, one blonde, and one white. All three had varying shades of green eyes and were all very beautiful with similar features. They wore leather vests covered with chain mail, wrist guards, leather pants, and steel-toed leather boots. Each held a sword with a dagger and throwing axe on a wide leather belt wrapped twice around their lean waists. All three had blue tattooing visible on their arms.
As soon as the red haired man disappeared, the black haired woman approached him and laid her hand on his chest, pushing him flat on the altar. The blonde and white haired women arrayed themselves evenly around the block of stone.
"You must listen carefully, Seosamh O'Niall, for what you have come here to ask for this night does not come without a price," she said, her voice a purring contralto. Her jade green eyes flashed with some fervent emotion even as she sheathed her sword and drew her dagger. The others did the same, standing over him with drawn blades. "In order to exact vengeance for your sister's death, a blood price must be paid by you. Our help does not come cheap and it does not come without bending certain rules concerning our meddling in your world."
"However," the blonde woman continued in her high, sweet voice, "this beast who hunts in this place has already broken the rules when he savaged Caitlain."
"And more rules will go by the wayside should he finish his task," the white haired one added, her voice harsh and grating despite it being very, very feminine. "What will be demanded of you to end this would be beyond any normal man."
"And so we will grant you this boon under conditions," Morrigan announced, her eyes roving the clearing. "And since you endeavored to aid him in this folly, it will fall to you to aid him in his fulfillment of this, too."
"W-what do you mean, Lady Morrigan," Airmeithinion asked, her normally sure voice quavering slightly and her eyes wide with the beginnings of fear.
"You allowed him to offer himself up unto Arawn, knowing it very likely he would fall to the Ankou," the blonde snapped, her sweet voice scathing.
"Lady Fea, I know this man and I know his love for his sister," the priestess pleaded, one hand outstretched beseechingly. "There was no way that he would turn aside from this. Nothing I could have told him would have stunted his yearning to bring his sister justice!"
"We know, for we have watched this one for a while now," the white haired woman said, her harsh voice suddenly caressing as she ran the flat of her dagger over Seosamh's arm, raising goose bumps, and gazing at him with passionate, agate eyes.
"I'm sorry, Lady Nemain, but I don't understand," Airmeithinion said, her face looking at the Goddess with confusion.
"We know," Morrigan said with a sad smile, "but we also know that you have been grooming this one to become a black dog."