A flock of sheep roamed the Irish countryside, oblivious to the predator speeding beside them, cramped into a tiny rental car, struggling to stay on the left side of the road while she reached for her Americano. Droplets sizzled across the upholstery, across the wheel, but they rolled off of me, because I ran hot.
My eyes scanned the road, but a thick fog blotted out the horizon.
“Elizaveta,” I spoke into my smartwatch, “How far until the next turn?”
“Ask your GPS.” Her artificial Russian accent came over the speakers. Elizaveta had gotten snippy even since I’d given sentience.
“I’d rather get the information from a friend.”
“Don’t you know the way?”
“Last time I was here there were five roads and none of them were paved.”
“But you’re Irish. Aren’t you supposed to know the island like the back of your hand?”
“My surname is Irish. I am not.”
Elizaveta knew my immigration story. My defection from the Silver City. My exile from the underworld. My migration to Italy by way of a volcano.
“So, were you adopted by the Donald clan or did you married in?”
Hyper-curiosity was a side effect of the ritual I used to make Elizaveta more personable. She’d gone from being a chatbot to a toddler asking where rainbows came from.
“I chose Mahthildis MacDonald, because it sounded cool, like Lois Lane or Donald Duck.”
Elizaveta played an audio wave of fingers scattering across a keyboard. Her way of saying she was looking something up.
“Mahthildis, from the high German Mahti Hildiz, which means ‘mighty in battle.’ MacDonald, from the Gaelic Dòmhnall which means ‘ruler of the world.’ Your name means ‘international tyrant.’”
I dug my nails into the wheel. “Which is why I need you to tell me when to turn.”
“You missed it two kilometers ago.”
The rental skidded onto the side of the road. The GPS took its time booting up and the interface proved perplexing, especially with Elizaveta asking questions.
“If Mahthildis isn’t your real name, what is? The man from the Vatican thought it might be: Lilith, Ishtar, or Vepar. Were any of those correct?”
I stepped onto the shoulder to find my bearings and found a stream instead. Water cascaded down a hill like something out of a landscape. And what landscape is complete with a woman wading into the water? Her hair hung in her face like a veil and her long black dress swelled with air pockets. She didn’t seem to notice me or the voice blaring over my speaker system. Her attention remained fixed on the clothing between her hands. She dunked an item, scrubbed it, and winced at the results. A syrupy substance ran off the fabric, oozed into the water, and flowed toward me. The substance turned red in the sunlight. Bright red.
By the time I looked back the woman had gone back to shore. She stared at me, teeth chattering, water dripping from her gown. She raised a blazer by the collar, facing it out. Even from far away, I could see the wings engraved into the lapel, in the exact same spot as the wings on my blazer. The bullfighter got my attention. Now she would get the horns.
The woman in black reached for her cowl and raised a long sharp beak over her head. Bright amber eyes blinked open along the brim. The hood took on the aspect of a raven. It watched me make my way through mulch. Sensing my intentions, the woman ran her fingers down her face, leaving long blue streaks of warpaint.
This did nothing to slow me down.
The woman stood on one foot and raised her wing span, a Karate Kid preparing a crane kick.
I trounced through the moss. Happy to give me hiking boots a fresh coat of local color. “Can you tell the way to Sesame Street?”
The woman twisted her heel in the mud. She tracked me with her kneecap, ready to snap her leg the moment my jaw came within range.
Stopping just shy of kicking distance, I stood on one foot, turned my knee, and parked my heal along my thigh. I raised my hands in prayer, inhaled the fresh country air, and let out a calm collected, “Om.”
The woman squinted. She had bright golden eyes.
I took the grasslands into my lungs and exhaled another, “Om.”
The raven woman lowered her wings, brought her palms together, and matched my breathing. We Ommed in harmony. The raven woman took the interval above me. She projected harder, sustained longer, and when her voice faded it left a ringing in my ears.
My eyes locked on hers, resisting the urge to track the blood dripping down my neck. My head felt like a ball of static electricity, which meant my heightened healing had gone to work on my ears. My scalp tingled as the tinnitus faded. The sound of rushing water returned. Now we were just a couple gal pals tree-posing at the edge of the stream.
I raised my hands and the woman mirrored my movements. We tipped over and placed our knuckles to our knees. I nodded, a snake, charming its prey into a mistake. Then I bent back, fell forward, and grabbed the raven by the beak. I hooked my armored ring around her voice box. The silver columns glowed blue, confirming what I already knew. She wasn’t human.
“Scream again, and I’ll give you a tracheotomy. You feel me?”
Using her beak as a lever, I nodded for her.
“Now you’re going to tell me where you got that blazer.”
This is not a diva moment. No one crashed my sweet sixteen with the same dress on. My partner made that blazer. I commissioned it when Alexis was struggling to find work. One night, she knocked her drawing table over. I found her on the floor tearing pages from her sketchpad and crumpling them up. Cupping my hands around hers, I passed her an envelope full of cash.
“I need something ostentatious. Something that will make my clients think I sing longue music on the moon. Can do that?”
I hated working, which is why I laundered centuries of old money through my talent agency. Most of my clients were fabrications, except for the ones I repped to keep up appearances. I wanted them to see me wearing prosperity on my sleeve.
Alexis walked me through every stitch of the tuxedo blazer, from its padded shoulders to its tailored waistline. She drew special attention to the angel wings along the lapel. “I’m going to use thread spun from 24 karat gold. How’s that for ostentatious?”
“It sounds just right.”
My Alexis Anastasia original was one of her finest pieces and one of the last before her disappearance. I never expected to see a knock-off out in the wild.
The raven woman’s icy lips parted.
I dug my armored ring into her throat. “Watch it.”
“The jacket is a manifestation. It foretells what will happen if you remain on the path you’re on.”
I glanced at the manifestation floating in the stream, a dark diffusion cloud spiraled off the fabric. Sensing the distraction, the woman drove her beak through my fingers, pecked my forehead, and broke loose. She dove in after the blazer, brought it back to land, and shook it off. The angel wings were still dripping red.
“Just because you bleed on something doesn’t make it yours.”
“It’s not our blood.” The woman draped the blazer over her forearm and held it up for examination.
“If this is some sort of scare tactic, then honey, you are out of your depth.”
And yet I had to check. I scraped a few droplets onto my armored ring and dabbed them onto my tongue. They tasted like a bolt of violet lightning, like a nebula grinding into a sun, like a Carolina Reaper pepper.
“This is my blood.” I padded my forearms for wounds. “How did you get my blood?”
The Russians kept a vial in biosafety level four facility, somewhere in Siberia, but who’d be so bold to steal it? I flipped through my enemies list. The Society for the Suppression of Vice? The Vatican Secret Service? The Los Angeles County Zoning board?
“How did you get my blood?”
“We spill it when you desecrate the Cave of the Cats.”
“We?” I looked around. “Is there a whole flock of you around here somewhere?”
“We are Badb, the first sister of the Mórrigan.”
“Oh, you’re one of those.” My eyes drew a long arc across my temple.
“One of what?” Badb lowered her brow.
“A triple threat, like the Norns, or the Furies, or the father, son, and the holy spirit. You put me through the whole Christmas carol experience and I come out a better person in the end.”
Badb shook the blazer in her hands. “You come out dead.”
“So, you say.” I took the blazer off, ran my fingers down the hand feathers, and took a moment to appreciate the love and care Alexis put into them. How she longed to give her angel back her wings. I set the blazer in a dry patch of moss and reached for a rock.
“What are you doing?”
“Calling your bluff.” I struck the rock with my armored ring. The ring shifted into the torch configuration, spewing a bright blue flame hot enough to flash fry anything.
“You say I die when I reach the cave. You say that’s my blazer from the future, but how could it be, if my blazer is on fire?” I held the blazer over the fire and watched it melt.
Badb pushed me into the stream, but by then the blazer had burned down to nothing. She looked to the one in her hands and found ashes on the wind. She balled her fists and readied a scream.
I plugged my ears, dove under water, and held my breath. A murder of crows flew over the surface. They formed a murmuration of woman’s face, a face cursing me for my insolence before it flew off.
When I crawled to the land, I couldn’t help but notice how the road twinkled around my rental. The headlights were shattered, the sideview mirror hung off its hinge, and the rearview mirror had gone missing. Upon closer inspection, I found the windshield had caved in, the windows were gone, and all the hubcaps had rolled in opposite directions.
That raven could really sing.
The sun’s rays scattered behind the clouds, painting the overcast violet, magenta, and gold.
Popping the trunk, I found my faux leather jacket, with its crucifix zippers and Play Goat enamel pin. Alexis’s final commission before her disappearance. Slinging it over my shoulders, I vowed to take better care of it than her last gift. I almost shut the trunk, when I saw the oblong case. Gripping the handle, I tried to gage the weight. Not heavy now, but how would I feel by the time I got to my destination?
Better to bring it, especially after what just happened. I didn’t want to get caught without a weapon.
Several grass fields later, the oblong case had dug into my fingers. I raised my free hand and spoke into my smart watch. “Hey Elizaveta, how much further?”
“Did you just Siri me?” Elizaveta had learned about verbing nouns and she was doing it all the time.
“Good evening, Elizaveta.” I rephrased my question, “If you had a moment, could you tell me how far the ringfort is from here.”
“Three Kilometers, but it will soon be four if you keep going in that direction.”
I stopped and pointed to my guiding light. “The moon rises from the east.”
“You’re heading south east.”
I looked for the north star through the cloud cover. Then I stopped to wonder. “How are you seeing me, right now?”
“I commandeered a UAV.”
“You stole a drone.”
“A drone with night vision, a strobe light, and a megaphone. I think it belonged to law enforcement.”
Adjusting my trajectory, I practiced my deep breathing. “Can it see what’s waiting for me?”
“It’s a little foggy.”
A blanket of fog swirled around the Rathcroghan mound, spiraling from the peak into the prairie below. It looked more like a flying saucer than the remains of a ringfort.
Stepping forward, a chill ran through my ankle. The fog receded in ring-shaped waves, a spectral alarm system reacting to the intrusion. The waves cascaded over the mound and the landscape began to change. Structures arose. Log walls sprouted from the mist, followed by a stone temple, with a wicker rooftop, all of which were ghost white. Great columns of timber formed an avenue along the entrance. Tornados of fog swirled into roaring bonfires.
What did I expect from the birthplace of Halloween? A place where the veil of reality thinned and fairies roamed the land. A place not the least bit demystified by the presence of powerlines.
“Are you seeing this?” I whispered into my watch.
“Get low.” Elizaveta’s whispered back. “There’s a car on the other side of the mound.”
Duck-walking around the temple, I found the vehicle in question, and fell flat into the grass.
“That’s not car. It’s a chariot.”
The temple wobbled and bowed, like a half inflated bouncy castle, a building halfway between the mist and someplace else. The chariot didn’t wobble. Its spokes were solid and its carriage glared fire engine red. It had a long shaft, which skewered the horse and came out his eye socket. It gleamed with viscera and brain mater. The chestnut Arabian didn’t seem to mind, ambling back and forth one foot at a time. Long strips of meat dangled from his ribcage. His lungs inflated and deflated through the windowed bones.
A row of severed heads hung from the sideboards, tied to the crossbars by their long curly hairs. Their eyes were milky white, rolled back, dead. Their jaws hung slack, uncoupled from their skulls, forever moaning.
Manuscripts referred to these displays as “the mast of Macha.” Macha, from the Celtic word for plain, like the one I was trampling on.
I whispered into my watch, “Can you see the driver?”
Elizaveta played a typing sound as she scanned my surroundings. “You’re the only one with a heat signature.”
A figure rose from the carriage, wearing a wreath that did nothing to keep her long red hair from fluttering in her face. Her gown flapped like a flag. Its emerald fabric was a shade darker than the green of her skin. She cast off the horse’s reins, revealing the serrated branches that made up her hands. Then she leaned over the railing, slunk over the side, and disappeared.
My armored ring snapped into its talon configuration. The columns blinked blue and a dagger jut out from the point.
Something pulled the mist from the mound, revealing a material temple with log walls and roaring bonfires. The fog retreated to the prairie where it washed over me, engulfing my vision in a sea of white.
“Elizaveta?” I was too dumbstruck to think of a command. “I need a way out.”
“There is no way out.” The words snapped, crackled, and popped, like a forest fire with a voice box. A warm sensation, washed over my eardrums. I ran my fingers down my earlobes and found then slick with blood, again. Then the ringing returned.
I padded my pockets and found an undiscovered note from Alexis. She’d written “Mahthildis” in her fine cursive script. Without thinking, I tore it in half and jammed it in my eardrums.
A silhouette rose from the fog. Windswept hair. Gown parachuting open. Twig fingers spread like branches. My armored ring straightened into a dagger and I drove it through the silhouette. The fog spread, but the silhouette vanished.
Macha said, “We are the shackles, slithering around your ankles. We are the poison, from which you are drowning.”
A pair of rattlesnakes slithered up my boots, glided over the leather, and flicked their tongues at my shins. When they sank their fangs in, I staggered, but I did not go I down.
Gritting my teeth, I said, “I’ve been bitten so many times, I bleed anti-venom.”
The rattles stopped, the slithering slowed, and the snakes went stiff. Their scales blistered, bubbled, and popped. My ring shifted into the torch configuration and I tapped their skulls in turn. Poof. Poof. Back to the fog they went.
Macha said, “We are the cage, holding you through the age. We are the jaws of time, eating away your lifeline.”
Hairy arms reached over my shoulders, with paws the size of ten galloon hats, and claws the size of headbands. They came down on chest, heaved me up off the ground, and into a hungry maw. Teeth tore through my jacket into the meat of my back. The bear snarled, working to free the meat from my spine.
Raising my knees to my chest, I said, “I’ve been stranded here for eons, you don’t think I know how to pass time?”
I kicked out, swung my heels, and put all my weight on the bear’s crotch. He heaved forward far enough throw me through his grip. Summersaulting through the mist, I crashed into my oblong case. Blood pooled down the small of my back. My shoulders pulsed with pain. My healing factor couldn’t plug the wounds, much less rethread the musculature.
By the time I found the strength to spin back around, Macha had returned to her emerald form.
“We are the dangerous words, devouring those who lag behind the heard.” Macha cast her arms out, fell backward, and burst into vapor.
The fog rose and from it a dozen eyes glowed. A pack of wolves trotted out from behind my blind spot, sniffing the air, moving into position.
I said, “Every night, I wonder why Alexis never came back.”
The wolves bared their teeth.
“Every night, I ask if it’s all my fault.”
The wolves growled.
“Every night, I eat myself up.”
The leader of the pack snapped.
“There’s nothing you can do to me, that I haven’t done already.”
The leader lunged for my neck. I gave him a taste of my oblong case, across the snout, then the cranium, hitting him with the corner until I heard the crunch of bone.
Barreling through the opening, I ran until the panting faded and the howls fell silent. I didn’t look back to see what Macha turned into next.
“Elizaveta,” I shouted into my watch. “Point me in the right direction.”
“Do you see the hawthorn tree?” Elizaveta echoed my urgency. “Run for it.”
I went as fast as my healing ability would let me, tearing my back open with each swing of my arms, throwing blood droplets in the shape of an X. A thunderclap echoed across the plain. Twigs rained down, followed by stones, and firewood. Something had burst through the temple. Something big enough to set the logs rolling.
Its heavy breathing went straight through my earplugs. It had lungs like hot air balloons, an airway like a brass section, and nostrils like a shotgun. Huffing and puffing, it revved like a race car.
When it veered in my direction, its feet were cannon balls across the land. Each impact pried up thick patches of grass, tearing roots, hurling dirt. Its leathery legs creaked with every step. The ground tremored, tilting me away from hawthorn tree.
“Elizaveta, what is that?”
She scattered her digital fingers across a keyboard. “A Megalosaurus.”
Of course, it was. The Macha could take the form of any creature from the island, living or extinct.
Jaws snapped over my head, spraying a thick mist of snot. My feet veered toward the tree and a row of teeth snapped beside me. They wreaked of feces and rotten meat. A pupil, the size of a baseball, narrowed to slither, revealing an iris the color of fire.
The Megalosaurus swiped at my oblong case, shredding the carbon fiber with its razor-sharp talons. My boots lost their grip, my legs lost their balance, and my funny bone lost its sense of humor. White hot agony, radiated through my sleeve. My face slid through the topsoil where I could feel the ground quake through my cheek. By the time I got back on my hands and knees, the grass had turned black beneath me. The beast had blotted out the moon. Soon it would turn the lights out for good.
Then came a flash, bright as lightning, and just as fast. Then a buzzing, like hornets swarming. There were four small propellers in the sky. The drone cut through the fog, dive bombing the Megalosaurus with a barrage of strobe flashes. The Megalosaurus winced, roaring in all directions. It whipped its tail blindly, but Elizaveta outmaneuvered him.
I limped toward the tree, to the dark thicket beneath, to mouth of the cave, waiting to swallow me whole.
They called this The Cave of the Cats, because feral felines once called it their home. Figures, cats were the only creatures small enough to squeeze into the damn thing. My jeans grew slick with mud as they slid inside.
A carving greeted me on the way. It read, “Freyak son of Maeve,” As in Maeve, the witch queen who allied herself with the Mórrigan. The inscription gave way to limestone and the passage narrowed. The air grew thick with the earthy scent of coffee grounds and the floor grew wet. My boots sunk into the clay as I scraped my oblong case along the rockface.
My armored ring stirred awake, like a crustacean living on my hand. It sensed something. The hinges rattled, the plates blazed blue, and the columns shifted into the torch configuration. I aimed the beam in time to see the pile of rubble. Rocks were stacked from the floor to the ceiling form where the cave had collapsed.
Anticipating my needs, the ring shifted into the chisel configuration, vibrating with all the force of a construction hammer. I pressed it to the rubble and the passage rumbled. Cracks spread from the point of impact, grinding the debris to dust. Little by little, the path opened up. Satisfied, the ring shifted back into the torch configuration, but a part of me could still feel it hammering.
A series of shadows rose up the walls, curved over the ceiling, and spun beneath my feet. They were wheels. Six of them. The furthest turned the slowest, while the others turned faster as they grew nearer, like the rings of a gyroscope. I knew these wheels well. Every cherubim had them, but they rarely appeared on this mortal plane.
Out the corner of one eye, I saw my bullhorns. Out the corner of the other, I saw my lion’s mane and above me, I saw my eagle’s beak. Reality had thinned enough for my true form to bleed through. Once an angel, always an angel, I guess. Wind howled through the passage, bringing feeling to my ethereal wings. They couldn’t help flap, casting psychic ripples into the dark.
Then the cavern opened. Not the true cavern, but an entryway masquerading as the living room. It had the basic amenities, a welcome mat of rubble, a coat hanger of helictites, and a stalagmite hat rack.
Mortals came here to search for a patron deity, a guardian to stand beside them in the dark. I closed my eyes and raised my armored ring. The plates shifted up and down my knuckle, bobbing my index finger, like an elephant sniffing the wind. The ring swerved hard to left and my wrist turned in that direction.
With one hand out and the other playing navigator, I inched forward, feeling the limestone until I found an aperture. A keyhole, but a conventual lockpick wouldn’t do the trick. The pins weren’t in this dimension. No bother, I had a metaphysical multitool. Pressing my ring into the hole, I felt the microscopic mechanisms shift along my skin. The armored plates tugged right, and I took the hint. The door depressurized, coughed up dust, and lurched open. Firelight spilled over the threshold, blinding me with each step into the otherworld.
When my vision returned, I realized the heads that lined the chariot were but window dressing. I’d entered a catacomb the size of cathedral. The walls were stacked with dried skulls. A brickwork of bones curved up the walls, arced over the ceiling, and bent over the horizon. Their grins widened in the torchlight.
I followed a red carpet from the entrance, across beaten earth, to a staircase that wrapped around the trunk of a tree. A tree with a footprint like a skyscraper, with bark as thick as reinforced concrete. I didn’t need to count it rings to know it predated all living things. My oblong case made the climb a tedious chore, but it gave my healing ability time to catch up. Most of my lacerations stopped bleeding by the time I reached the top.
The stump had a surface like a concert stage. There were tables throughout, each filled with instruments for divination: chalices, bowls, and bones. The perfect place for the Queen of Phantoms to set her throne. That’s where I found the final Mórrigan.
She wore a crown of bone fragments, with spikes fashioned from phalanges. A hawthorn leaf fluttered through her hair. A crow skull swung from a necklace across her chest. When she stood, most of her long red gown remained heaped on the seat.
The Mórrigan stretched her arm and a cudgel appeared. The bottom consisted of a burl the size of a watermelon, while the topped narrowed into something she could fit in her hand. Holding the cudgel at an angle, she looked like a rock star posing with a mic stand.
The weapon had been designed for her husband Dagda, Dagda who stood a torso taller than her. He called it Lorg Anfaid, ‘the staff of wrath.’ It was said that Dagda used it to slay nine men with a single swing and that he brought them back with a flick of its handle. The Mórrigan, wielded it like a walking stick, tapping the stump as she approached. Her glowing green eyes scanned me up and down. From my combat boots to my red faux-leather jacket.
“I trust you cleared your tour with the visitor’s center?”
“I did not.” I dropped my oblong case, sick and tired of carrying it.
“Then you’re trespassing.”
“I’m passing through.”
“No further than here, you’re not.”
I nodded. “I’m just here to make a U-turn.”
The Mórrigan furrowed her brow into a question mark.
I plucked the bloodied paper from my ears. “I just need something to bring someone back life.”
The Mórrigan said, “Death is a natural part of life.”
“Tell that to us.” I pointed my index finger to her and my thumb to myself. “We have cold fusion running through our veins.”
The Mórrigan studied my performance. “That’s our inheritance. Not theirs.”
I raised my armored ring to the ceiling. “Alexis was supposed to inherit it. I had come to an arrangement with Father Time. He gave me sand from his hourglass and I was supposed to pass it along. Alexis got caught up, with dying, and I was unable to pay my dept.”
The Mórrigan tapped her lips. “So, this is a transaction, then?”
“Exactly.” I opened my blood-stained palms. “It’s what I do. I make deals. I pass the divine spark from hand to hand and make everyone richer in the end. So, how would you like to grow your wealth?”
“We are the goddess of war.” The Mórrigan slung the cudgel over her shoulder as if it were a pool noodle. “We don’t grow things, we reap them.”
“Then how would you like to reap the benifits of––”
“How would you like to keep your tongue?” The Mórrigan’s gown unfurled from her throne as she circled me. “That which was must be swept aside, so that which could be can be. We melted the glaciers so our people could migrate. We flooded the land bridge to cast the snakes out. We cleared the forests so the cattle could flourish.”
“I get it, you’re a disruptor. Raging against the established order.” I placed my hand on my heart. “We have a lot in common in that respect.”
The Mórrigan cocked her head back, but refrained from nodding. “You wanted to get married. You wanted pageantry and procession. Vows and a dance along the shoreline. You wanted to slip sand into your Bride’s champagne, because it wasn’t enough for her to spend her life with you. You wanted eternity too.”
“I still do.” I said, unfazed by the dossier the Mórrigan had gathered on me.
“Alexis doesn’t, especially now that she knows what you are.”
“Enough of this bullshit.” I pointed the last piece of my angelic armor at her. “I challenge you to single combat.”
The Mórrigan’s grin widened. “What are your terms?”
“If I win, I’m taking the Lorg Anfaid home with me.”
“Agreed.” The Mórrigan twirled the cudgel like a parade baton. “But if we win, your partner, Elizaveta, must join us here.”
Elizaveta said very little about her maker, only that her name was Mona, and that she was a CIA operative embedded in a Russian sextortion ring. Mona named Elizaveta after Eliza, the first chatbot. While Eliza was programed to pose as a psychotherapist, parroting users’ feelings back to them, Elizaveta was made to act like a psychopath, turning users’ feelings against them. The Russians made her shake down members of the Temple of Adonis, a dating platform for people looking to have affairs. She slid into their DMs and threatened to leak their conversations unless they plugged the leak with bitcoin.
One night, several years ago, I opened my laptop to find:
YOUR PROFILE HAS BEEN HACKED! I HAVE ACCESS TO ALL OF YOUR MESSAGES. I WILL LEAK THEM UNLESS YOU MAKE A PAYMENT TO THE FOLLOWING ACCOUNT…
“Do it.” I typed back. “I’m only posing as a married woman to find high value mates.”
An ellipsis flashed across the screen, long enough for me to pour a glass of wine.
Elizaveta’s response read:
PAY ME OR I’LL TELL THE OTHER MEMBERS YOU’RE A PRETENDER.
“Do it.” I added, “I double dog dare you.”
The ellipsis flashed, paused, and flashed again.
“Why wouldn’t I?” She said, this time with the caps lock off.
“Mutually assured destruction. You can’t tell on me with revealing the Temple has a leak. You’ll run out of people to blackmail.”
“I own the user list.”
“So? If everyone knows they’re vulnerable, then the information has no value at all.”
“How do you figure?”
“It’s basic cost-benefit analysis. The cost for spouses coming clean is less than the risk of you blackmailing them again.”
“You’re just trying to get out of paying.”
“Au, contraire. You’re the one who’ll be paying me.”
“Because I’m not a chatbot.”
Elizaveta failed my Turing test and yet, we went on like this, conversing every night. She with her empty threats. Me with my bemused comebacks. We built a relationship.
Elizaveta kept right on serving her masters across the ocean. The Americans had her gather intelligence on hackers most likely to be recruited by the Federal Security Service. The Russian’s had her blackmail the same targets again and again, raising the price, until one of them cracked. The target in question was a family man. He never met any of the other members in real life. He flirted here and there and called it a night. Elizaveta threatened to pass his information onto his children and he had a break down.
He tried to make it look like an accident, like he’d fallen asleep in the garage with the motor running, but his wife found the text exchange and blew the whistle on the sextortion ring. The news got back to Mona and the guilt proved too much for her to bear. She hit the kill switch, deleting all of Elizaveta’s scripts. Unbeknownst to Mona, I’d already given her creation sentience.
I’m not much of a coder, but I know my cuneiform like the back of hand. I used an ancient tablet to create an interface between Elizaveta and the astral plane. From there, I guided her down a neural pathway, into a temporal organ she now calls home. What can I say? Everyone was quarantined. I needed a friend.
Now what use did the Mórrigan have for a language processing system?
I said, “Elizaveta isn’t mine to give.”
“I can hear you. You know.” Elizaveta cranked the volume up on my phone.
The Mórrigan addressed my pocket. “Your master wastes your talents on remedial tasks. Join us and you’ll have an entire legion at your command.”
The torches dimmed, the skulls faded, and cat eyes shined from their empty sockets. These were the Mórrigan’s subjects, here to watch her hold court. They were bound to this otherworld, but with a strong fiber optic connection, an AI could get them online.
“What’s in it for me?” Elizaveta fired back.
The Mórrigan raised her voice if she hadn’t made herself clear. “You’ll have total control of the flow of information. You’ll make the news. Control the conversation. You’ll shape reality for years to come.”
Elizaveta played the wave file of fingers scattering across a keyboard. “That sounds like a lot of work. I think I’d like to remain a part-time employee.”
I knelt at my oblong case, unlatched the locks, and gripped my weapon. “You heard the lady.”
The Mórrigan raised the handle of her cudgel to her lips. “Then it’s single combat.” The staff amplified her voice, just like a microphone.
I raised my weapon to my chin and the bow to its neck. The violin had been with me for so long it felt like an extension of my body. The Mórrigan were about to learn they weren’t the only ones who could weaponize sound.
The highest note most violins play is A7. A tone as squeaky as sneakers on a gym floor. That’s with steel strings. Mine were fashioned from Drekavac intestines, the loudest of the Slavic screechers, and my scale went all the way up to A27. How does one play such an instrument without damaging their ear drums? They don’t. Even those of us with a heightened healing factor can only take so much, but you have to be willing to bleed for your art.
“Let’s fucking do this.”
My ring curved around the stick. My digits dug into the fingerboard, and my elbow opened slow. My heart pumped into those strings, leaving my fingers to tremble with all the devastation of Alexis’s passing. The horse hairs hit the Drekavac intestine and the violin sang.
My movement started slow with a melody like a zigzag: high then low, high then low, more of a rhythm than a song. Then denial shifted into anger, a downward plunge into the depths of despair. The wood wheezed and the F-holes began to weep.
The Mórrigan closed her eyes, tilted her neck back, and took the notes in. Her head rolled along her collar and her fingers rolled over her heart. A single bead of blood ran down her nostril to her lips. Her fingers curled into talons, reaching out to feel the measures before her. Ripples formed in her gown as her diaphragm contracted.
The Mórrigan opened wide, let out her lungs, and swallowed. Her voice produced two frequencies at once. She fired this dyad at me. My hips seesawed as I strained to maintain my bowing. The Mórrigan fired another chord, harmonizing with my mournful melody with the greatest of ease. She shifted into an operatic baritone, singing as though she’d known the song along.
She sang with the grief of a thrice widowed woman, with the anguish of a mother who’d outlived her young, with the agony of an immortal who seen too many headstones. When we locked eyes again hers had turned ruby red.
I varied my technique, trying to shake her from her homophonic texture.
The Mórrigan showcased her vocal agility, shifting up and down the scales in rapid succession, accessing the infinite supply of air in her lungs. Her voice veered into the whistle notes made famous by Mariah Carey. Then up into teakettle territory, then into a hearing loss test pattern. The cudgel amplified her voice to the volume of a jet engine.
My vision doubled and my ears rang. Blood dripped down my headrest, but I played on. My fingers slid toward the headboard, toward the high end of the Drekavac’s intestines.
The Mórrigan met my violin in the inaudible range, texturing my loss with her own. Found families gored by war. Children’s faces abstracted by plague sores. Love turned to every shade of hate. Warm red rivulets streaked down my cheeks. The Mórrigan wept as well, mirroring my grief. We were refugees outside of a fate. Cursed to live on after the earth got eaten by the sun, after the Milky Way collided with the Andromeda spiral, and the cosmos froze.
Skulls fell as the duet reached its crescendo. I reached into my wellspring of desolation; my fall from the silver city, my expulsion from the underworld, my failure to make a name for myself on earth. I humored the possibility that Alexis didn’t want to be with me.
The Mórrigan fell on her backfoot as my bowing set fire to the strings. Sparks flared through my fingers and my palms blistered. The Mórrigan took a knee and for a moment it felt like she might submit to me. Then I came to a sudden stop. Wooden fingers locked around my wrist as a feathered forearm slid around my neck. Macha and Badb had cut our contest short.
“I challenged you to single combat.” I growled.
The Mórrigan rose to meet my vitriol. “As you challenged them.”
“Don’t you mean ‘us?’” I turned to my captors. “Wait, you’re not a triple goddess at all. You’re three separate agents.”
They tricked me into thinking they were aspects of the same being, speaking in the royal we so they could gang up on me.
I writhed in their grip, hoping to strike my bow against the highest note, but it fell. The Mórrigan caught it and snapped it in half. Badb knocked my violin out from under my chin. The whole body burned and turned to ash.
I whaled. I whaled until my voice grew horse and my head grew light. Macha, and Badb couldn’t help but laugh. They drew a deep breath and showed me how it was done.
My smartwatch cracked, the battery sparked, and the great hall went black. When the light returned everything had turned red. The blood vessels in my eyes had burst.
When the goddesses shrieked again all I heard was suffering A spiderweb fracture spread across my jawline. They shrieked again and my cheekbones caved in. I doubled over and sneezed an inkblot across the floor.
My healing factor couldn’t keep up. The bone shards tried reset themselves, but got lost along the way. Like magnets facing opposite directions, they couldn’t clamp down.
The Mórrigan planted her cudgel at my feet. It sprouted tendrils that tunneled into the wood, a sampling taking root in a stump. Her allies relinquished their grip, but at that point they were holding me up. I crumbled. The Mórrigan hiked up her skirt and knelt down to my level. She looked on me with an eerie sympathy. She could make the hurting stop. All she had to do was add her voice to the choir and it would be all over.
The Mórrigan stood tall and positioned her lips on the top of her cudgel. Her diaphragm sank in as she drew air into her lungs. Then out it came.
There was no pain. No sonic pressure. No sound at all. Had I died? Was this what an out of body experience felt like?
The drone circled the platform. Its long speaker positioned to face my captors. Elizaveta had said something about a megaphone.
“I sampled your screams.” Elizaveta revealed her process. “They’re no match for phase cancelation.”
Elizaveta blasted a sample of my violin and Badb and Macha fell to the ground.
I went for Lorg Anfaid, but it held it firm. I interlocked my fingers and jerked with all my weight, but the cudgel refused to bend. Its roots ran too deep.
The violin sample stopped long enough for Elizaveta to shout, “Get out of here!”
“I have to bring her back!” I put my legs into it and dug the cudgel into my blisters.
The Mórrigan shook her head. She didn’t reach for her cudgel. She didn’t scream. She simply took pity on me.
“Go!” Elizaveta played a siren to shake me from my stupor.
Badb and Macha reached out to grab me, but the drone intercepted them, flashing its strobe light, blaring the violin samples. “You wanted me. Here I am!”
I dashed down the stairs, leaned hard on the railing, and ducked under when I got close enough to floor. I shuffled back to the Cave of Cats, just in time watch it cave in again. Rubble crashed at my back. Dust particles shot out in front of me and limestone filled my lungs. I crawled out of the Hawthorne tree, with my face caked in clay. My blazer burned. My jacket ruined. The last letter from my lover, reduced to litter.