"Here is what I suspect: Esmeralda wanted power and formed her coven, but she lacked education and training. The coven probably began by worshipping Morrigan, but whether by accident or on purpose, Esmeralda permitted Morfran to insert himself into their rites and take over."
The seven witches focused on me. The atmosphere in the dome grew tense. I plowed on.
"I suspect that Morrigan has the ability to manifest during the flare, when the magic is at its deepest. She does it by using a magic cauldron. Morfran wanted life just as much and either taught Esmeralda how to duplicate the cauldron or had her steal the cauldron that had been in the possession of legitimate Morrigan covens."
Either I had hit the nail on the head or the four representatives of Morrigan got a simultaneous case of serious constipation, because their faces turned red and strained.
"I think that Morfran is in cahoots with the Fomorians, but I don't know why. I need to know what happened after the rite was performed, what happened to Julie's mother, and what's the significance of the necklace the little shaman boy named Red carried."
"Where is the necklace?" Bran suddenly came to life.
"I'm not telling you."
He spread his arms. "Why not? I'm the good guy here!"
"I don't know that. It's a trust issue. Until somebody explains this mess to me, nobody gets the necklace."
"I'll explain." The middle witch of the Oracle leaned back. Above her, the mural shifted. The black lines crawled. The outlines of Hekate grew faint while the cauldron before her solidified.
"Two generations ago at the start of the Shift, Morrigan entrusted her covens with a magic cauldron."
"They did a bang-up job taking care of it," Bran said.
The mother-witch pinned him down with her stare. "Hush."
"We didn't know," one of Morrigan's witches said. "And she hasn't spoken to us since the last flare."
The middle witch silenced her with a wave of her hand. "Now then, the cauldron is her way into our world. Its magic only manifests during a flare. Morfran wanted the cauldron so that he too could experience life. He made a deal with Morrigan's enemies, the Fomorians, the sea-demons. In exchange for their help, he would release them, through the cauldron, from the Otherworld. They're not gods. They need little magic to exist here. They will become his first worshippers in this world."
"But I killed at least ten of them. How many came through?"
"You don't kill them," Bran said. "They don't stay dead unless I leave one of my shafts in them. As long as the cauldron feeds on the magic of the flare, they continue to return to life. The closer they are to the cauldron, the harder it is to disable them."
Great. Fantastic. "Couldn't you have told me this sooner?"
"It's a trust issue," he told me, mimicking my voice. I felt like smacking him.
"Okay, but how did the Fomorians get the cauldron in the first place?"
The witch sighed, folding her hands on her lap. "Through the ages Morrigan's Hounds have protected the cauldron, and only they have power over it."
On the walls the hounds raised their muzzles in a silent howl. Men, just like Bran, stolen from humanity through a fool's bargain.
"The covens of Morrigan thought the cauldron was secure, because nobody but a hound could move it from their gathering place. But they didn't know that years ago one of Morrigan's Hounds strayed."
On the left a drawing of the hound stretched and became a man.
"He left Morrigan for a woman and the terms of his bargain forced her to let him and his progeny live."
Things snapped together in my head. "Red. That little bastard is a descendant of the hound who got away."
The witch nodded.
"That means he can carry the cauldron. He stole the cauldron?"
The four witches of Morrigan looked like they wanted to be anywhere but here.
"I saw the imprints of the cauldron's legs. It's huge. Red's arms are this big around." I touched my index finger to my thumb. "How in the world did he carry it? And how could you not notice the giant cauldron being dragged away?"
"We were so used to it sitting there, it took a little while to realize it was gone," one of the witches said.
"You can shrink it," Bran said. "Small enough to fit in your pocket."
"Or slide onto a necklace. Oh crap. Wait, you said the cauldron is keeping the Fomorians alive, so they have the cauldron. What's on the necklace then?"
Bran shrugged his shoulders. "The lid. The boy stole the cauldron for the witch, but I crashed the party just as they finished the rite and the first Fomorian crawled out. While I was busy being the hero, he took off with the lid."
"What does the lid do?"
"It controls the cauldron."
I fought an urge to grab him and shake him until the whole story fell out. "How?"
"You put the lid on one way and it's the cauldron of plenty. You put the lid on the other way and it's a gateway to the world of the dead. Right after the first batch of Fomorians came through I closed the cauldron, turning it into the cauldron of plenty. It still keeps them alive, but unless they can get ahold of the lid, they can't open the gateway again to let Morfran out."
"What happens if Morfran gets to appear instead of Morrigan?"
He grimaced. "It's a simple bargain, woman. He gets life and the cauldron. They get life and freedom. If he appears, he will release the horde of sea-demons into your city. They want revenge on Man. Use your head to imagine what will happen next."
I looked to the Oracle. "Is he telling the truth?"
The youngest Oracle nodded. "He is."
"One last thing. Why did you keep stealing the maps?"
He sighed. "The cauldron must sit on the crossing of three roads. It won't shrink for the Fomorians, so they had to physically drag it somewhere. There are only so many places where three roads cross. The cauldron of plenty doesn't shine with magic the way the cauldron of rebirth does. Hard to sense where it is. I was misting to each crossing of the roads near the pit, trying to find the cauldron."
That made sense. "Okay. The Pack has the lid," I told him.
He grinned. "This shouldn't be too hard."
Thin tongues of mist swirled around his feet and dissipated into the air. Leaving him standing in the same spot.
"You're still here."
"I know that!" He rocked forward. Mist puffed and vanished. Again. Again. "Something is wrong. You!" Bran pointed at the youngest Oracle. "Find the Shepherd!"