Stan Lee: 1922 – 2018

Yesterday, pop culture lost a giant.

You may not know his name, but I guarantee you know his work. And, I’d bet, you’d even find his face oddly familiar. Born Stanley Martin Lieber, he would become known to the world as Stan Lee. Lee, along with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and a handful of others, created the Marvel Universe of superheroes. Spider-Man? His. Fantastic Four? His. Avengers, the X-Men, Hulk, Black Panther? He created or co-created all of them. But, more than that, Stan Lee was the face of Marvel Comics.

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Long before “The Man” was making cameos in the big screen adventures of his creations, he was making cameos in the actual comics. Lee wrote a monthly column called “Stan’s Soapbox” in which he would talk directly to the fans. (You’ve probably seen one of the more famous columns popping up on social media over the last few years.)

stan-soapbox

 

I came to comic books late, probably around fifth or sixth grade, and didn’t really start “collecting” comics until college. But, I knew superheroes. I knew Spider-Man and the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. I knew them from Saturday morning cartoons. That’s also how I knew Stan Lee. Stan Lee was there every Saturday, ushering me into the world of Marvel superheroes in his own, bombastic-yet-self-effacing humor. “Howdy, True Believers!” and “Excelsior!” are every bit a call to action in my mind as “Avengers assemble!” or “To me, my X-Men!” Stan Lee was more than the creator of the Marvel Universe, he was a part of it.

Stan Lee died on Monday, November 12, at the age of 95. Was it a surprise? No. Between repeated illnesses and accusations of elder abuse, the last few years had not been kind to Mr. Lee. It was clear, if you had the courage to see it, that Stan “The Man” Lee was slowly slipping away. Maybe he longed to reunite with his beloved wife of 70 years, Joanie, who had passed away in July of 2017. The point is, while Lee’s death was not a surprise, it was certainly a shock.

Stan Lee was an important part of my life. He taught me about superheroes. His name is at the top of my list of people who inspired me to become a storyteller. Was he perfect? No. But, who among us are? In fact, it was Stan Lee who taught us that we can be superheroes despite our own flaws.

RIP, Stan “The Man” Lee. Excelsior!

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The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Six

What better way to celebrate the new year than by reading the final chapter of The Dagger of Tiamat? If you need a refresher course, the previous five chapters can be found here.

I promise the next serial will have a tighter schedule.

Enjoy!

The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Six

A simple dirt lane ran north from the A9, cutting through a stretch of ancient woodlands just north of the village of North Kessock. The dense forest of Scots pines had stood since before the first Picts had settled in the area. As settlements in the area grew, a lot of the trees were cut down for timber and firewood, the land eventually cleared to make room for fields and pastures. But, this thick patch of trees remained untouched for centuries. According to local folklore, these woods were haunted.

     Tonight, those stories would be correct.

     A light summer breeze blew, rustling the branches and sending dirt and dust swirling here and there in little dust devils. The breeze suddenly stopped. The air began to vibrate as if a storm was approaching. The night air crackled with an otherworldly energy. A sliver of scarlet energy appeared in the aether, slicing through the empty air. The swirling energy created a hole in time and space, a portal between the Scottish highlands and someplace else.

    Gwen Sinclair stepped through the portal. She was once again dressed for battle in a long chainmail shirt and hooded cloak, a broadsword clutched in her gauntleted hand. She scanned her immediate surroundings, for what she could not see as much as for what she could.

    Brendan Finn followed, also dressed for battle, but his outfit was less medieval and more Metropolis. His high-collared costume was dark blue, with black accents down either side. The sleeves came to just above his elbows and a pair of black fingerless gloves completed the ensemble. He had traveled the world in this costume, fighting aliens, super-criminals, and terrorists. But, standing in the middle of a forest beside the Champion of Avalon suddenly made him feel underdressed.

    “Welp,” Brendan said, “this is certainly a dark and spooky forest.”

    Gwen nodded. She sheathed her sword and the portal behind them vanished. “The British Isles are full of places like this. Dark places. Places still connected to our primordial past.”

    “You always take me to the nicest places.”

    Gwen smirked. She knelt down and picked up a handful of dirt. Closing her eyes, she began muttering to herself. Brendan couldn’t make out the words, but they sounded like they had a Celtic origin. The runes and sigils that lined her cloak began to glow. She let the grains of sand fall from one hand into the palm of the other. As the sand fell, it began to glow with the same otherworldly light as Gwen’s cloak.

    When she finished her incantation, Gwen scattered the glowing sand across the lane. Brendan was about to ask what that was going to do when the glowing grains of sand began to coalesce into a series of glowing footprints that led off into the forest.

    Gwen stood and booped Brendan on the nose. “Impressed yet?” she winked. She turned on one heel and followed the tracks into the woods.

    “Always.”

#

They made their way through the forest. The trees were so dense that Brendan could barely see the star-filled sky above them. If there hadn’t been a full moon, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to see his hand in front of his face. He was taking care to avoid stepping on twigs or tripping over exposed roots, while Gwen moved through the forest as if it wasn’t even there. He didn’t know if it was skill, magic, or a mix of both.

    After about fifteen minutes, the trees began to thin. Gwen held up a hand, then pointed to the tree line. Brendan slowed. Beyond the trees, they could see a clearing of some kind. In the center of the clearing stood a ring of stones. The stones were irregularly shaped, but each stood about five feet tall. There were four of them, seemingly placed to correspond to the four cardinal directions.

    A lone figure moved around the clearing. He was tall and slender, wrapped in a long, black coat. He stepped among the stones, gloved fingers lazily tracing symbols on the bare stone.

    From the tree line, Brendan and Gwen watched his bizarre movements. “Is that Pierson?” Brendan whispered.

    “I don’t know,” Gwen said. “I can feel the pull of powerful magicks, but it could just be the stones. Or the ley lines. Or-”

    Brendan nodded. “I guess there’s one way to find out.” The transformation from man to wolf was almost instantaneous. The sounds and smells of the forest flooded his senses. He could smell Gwen beside him: familiar, strong, determined. He could hear the denizens of the forest rustling in their nests and burrows. He could smell their fear. They knew something was in their forest that shouldn’t be.

    He caught a strange new scent. He padded around the edge of the clearing, keeping to the shadows created by the undergrowth and canopy. His wolf form was slightly larger than an ordinary wolf, but he was just as stealthy. The scent was familiar, but not. It smelled sick, like disease or poison. Or death.

    The wolf turned and ran back to where he had left Gwen. She looked up just as Brendan returned to human form. “It’s him, isn’t it?”

    “I think so,” Brendan replied. “He smelled…familiar, but also corrupt somehow. Like a disease.”

    “The dagger,” Gwen said. “The influence is poisoning him. Has been for five years.”

    “Hello, Brendan.”

    They both looked toward the clearing. The figure was standing in the center of the stone circle, staring directly at them. In the moonlight, they could make out his features. The high forehead, the aquiline nose, the severe jawline. It was Malcolm Pierson, but it wasn’t. His skin was waxy and paper thin, blue-black veins traced their way up his neck and across his cheeks and brow. His hair, once fashionably cut and styled was now wild and unkempt, with jagged white streaks running through the jet black.

    Then there were his eyes. Pierson had brown eyes, intelligent and cruel. He now stared at them with eyes that were vacant, devoid of any emotion with the possible exception of hate.

    “Far from home, Finn,” Pierson called. “Ah, but I see the ginger bitch is with you to make sure you don’t get lost.”

    Brendan tensed, but Gwen placed an arm on his shoulder. “Look,” she said. “It’s the dagger.”

    He followed her gaze and saw that Pierson’s coat had fallen open. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and the Dagger of Tiamat was embedded in the flesh of his bare chest. Right over his heart. The tip of the obsidian dagger pointed towards the ground. The blue-black lines that covered Pierson’s face seemed to be emanating from the dagger’s tip. The handle was wrapped in the sinew of some kind of ancient animal–knowing the artifact’s dark history, it was probably human. Brendan was sure the handle was pulsing, like a beating heart.

    Pierson spread his arms out and looked up at the stars overhead. He threw his head back and opened his mouth, but instead of a scream, a thick column of oily black smoke shot skyward. The smoke gathered into a swirling mass of clouds over the stone circle. The cloud became thicker, spreading to cover the entire clearing. The swirling, roiling maelstrom seemed to devour the sky.

    “That looks familiar,” Brendan said. “It looks like–”

    “It’s a portal,” Gwen said. “He’s using the power of the ley lines, focused through the stones, to open an extradimensional portal.”

    “That’s bad.”

    Gwen closed her eyes and began to recite another incantation. The sigils and runes on her cloak burned with a fiery, scarlet light. She drew her sword and roared as she charged out of the trees, heading directly towards Pierson.

    “Seriously?”

    Pierson watched her approach. He grinned, running the tip of his tongue across his lips. With a single wave of his hand, a thorn-covered vine as thick around as a tree trunk erupted from the ground. Gwen tried to dodge it, but the vine snapped back and coiled around her body, pinning her arms to her sides. The pulsating vine began to constrict, crushing her like a python crushing its prey.

    “Finn!”

    Brendan’s wolf-beast form was what most people picture when they think of werewolves. Almost seven feet tall, with powerful shoulders and a barrel chest, and covered from snout to tail with reddish-brown fur. His jaws were full of sharp teeth as long as a grown man’s index finger, and his hands and feet ended in wicked, curved claws. Before the team, Gwen was his first pack and she was in danger.

    The wolf-beast howled as he sprung from the trees. Digging in with his clawed feet, the wolf-beast raked the clawed fingers of both hands through the tough, leathery outer skin of the monster vine. Ignoring the thorns, the wolf-beast savaged the pulsating vine, tearing through the fibrous interior with tooth and claw. Thick, green slime flew through the air and splattered his fur.

    “There it is,” Pierson snarled. “There’s the thing that stopped me all those years ago. My ancestors were landed gentry not so long ago. They hunted beasts like you for sport.”

    The wolf-beast shook slime from his snout. He grinned. “Tough. Talk.”

    Pierson shrieked. He stomped his foot and curled his arms as if he was pulling a particularly stubborn weed from the ground.

    A line of vines burst forth from the ground. The wolf-beast growled. Behind him, Gwen was able to fight her way free from the damaged vine that had trapped her. With her Wulver by her side, the Champion of Avalon raised her sword.

    “Etain, light the way!” The blade of Gwen’s sword began to glow, the white light intensifying until it was impossible to look at. When the wolf-beast was finally able to open his eyes, the entire clearing had been incinerated, leaving behind nothing but smoldering, dead earth.

    Gwen pointed her sword at Pierson. “Malcolm Pierson,” she shouted, “you stand in violation of the Avalon Accords. Surrender the Dagger of Tiamat and repent for your actions.”

    Pierson just laughed. Above him, the portal was growing in size and intensity. A storm had formed in the heart of the maelstrom, crackling bolts of purple energy lanced out and danced between the stones of the circle.

     “You can’t stop us,” he said. It sounded as if his voice was joined by a chorus of other voices, barely audible, but there. “The portal will open. The Old Ones will return. And the Champion of Avalon will be the first foul mortal they feast upon.”

    The wolf-beast howled a challenge and charged the stone circle. Without looking, Pierson snapped a finger and a tendril of crackling purple energy hit the wolf-beast in the chest, knocking him back and leaving a patch of his fur scorched and smoking.

    Finn. It was Gwen’s voice. In his head. Summer had used a telepathic link with the team enough times for him to recognize it.

    Gwen. How?

    Communing with beasts is a pretty simple incantation. He felt the humor in her words. A hell of a lot easier than talking to you in person.

    He let that go. Okay. What’s the plan?

    Pincer movement. You get right. I’ll go left.

    Simple. I like it.

    Be careful, my brave Wulver.

    You, too, Champion of Avalon. And it’s Wolfen.

    The wolf-beast broke right, running around the outer perimeter of the stone circle. He was about to come around and attack Pierson’s flank when he saw Gwen charging their opponent head on.

    She must have taken Pierson by surprise. He raised a hand, either in defense or attack, and Gwen’s blade sliced it off at the wrist. She brought her sword up and around, pivoting on one foot to bring the blade back down, slicing Pierson across the chest, from right shoulder to left hip.

    “Gwen!” the wolf-beast roared. “Stop!”

    Pierson had fallen to his knees. His torso and the front of his pants were covered in blood. Gwen stood over him, sword poised and ready for a killing strike. “We have to stop him once and for all, Finn,” she said through clenched teeth. “He’s been taken by the dagger. He must be dealt with.”

    With incredible speed, the wolf-beast lashed out and tore the artifact from Pierson’s chest. He tossed the blood-and-gore-covered dagger at Gwen’s feet. Pierson gurgled, gasped, and passed out, falling face-first to the ground. Without Pierson to act as a conduit, the dagger’s power was cut off. The magic storm began to subside, the black clouds dissipating. The portal was closed.

    Brendan returned to human form. “There,” he said, “we have the dagger. We don’t have to kill Pierson.”

    Gwen lowered her sword. She looked at Pierson, then at the dagger. “I– I– Oh, Finn.” She turned to face him, her face pale and her eyes full of sorrow. And maybe a little bit of fear. “It’s always been monsters and demons. I’ve never faced another person before.”

    “The good news is you didn’t kill him.”

    She knelt beside Pierson’s unconscious body, checking for a pulse. “And I don’t intend to.” She moved her hands over his wounds, whispering an incantation. The bleeding stopped and the wounds closed, leaving behind only raw, jagged scars.

    Brendan put a hand on her shoulder. “I know some people who can take him off our hands.” He pointed at the Dagger of Tiamat and added, “But what do we do about that?”

    “It shouldn’t be in this world,” Gwen said. “Not anymore. It would only be a matter of time before another Pierson stumbled upon it and–”

    Brendan spread his hands apart and mouthed the word “Boom.”

    Gwen laughed. She sat next to the dagger. She placed her hands on either side of the dagger, closed her eyes and began to mutter another spell. When she was done, the Dagger of Tiamat was encased in a cube constructed of crystal and gold, glowing runes and sigils decorating the cube’s six sides.

    “It should be safe in the vaults of Avalon.”

    Brendan grinned. “Isn’t that always the way?”

#

“I really appreciate the lift, Professor. You didn’t have to.”

    “Nonsense, my boy,” Ferguson said, “nonsense.” He came around the back of his battered, orange Citroen and offered Brendan a hand. “It’s not every day I get to take the old girl out for some exercise.”

    Brendan accepted the older man’s hand. Taxis and other vehicles were pulling up to the curb and depositing groups of people. A family of German tourists chattered happily as they made their way to one of Heathrow’s departure terminals.

    “Brendan, lad,” Ferguson said. “I do hope it won’t be another five years before I see you again.”

    “That goes double for me, Finn.” Gwen was holding his free hand and she squeezed it playfully.

    The last two days had been like old times. After calling A.T.H.E.N.A. to take Pierson into custody, Brendan had asked Gwen if they could spend his remaining time in London together. She had agreed. Two days wasn’t enough time to try to rekindle a romance that had died five years ago, but it felt good having her by his side again. They had wandered through bookstores, visited the National Gallery, and even made out in a favorite hidden corner of the British Museum.

    “You can teleport between London and the Scottish highlands,” Brendan said. “If you can’t figure out how to find New York, you’re not much of an all-powerful Champion.”

    “Oi!” She swatted his shoulder. “Watch it, Finn, or I’ll turn you into a toad.”

    He wrapped his arms around her waist and drew her closer. “It might be an improvement,” he grinned. He kissed her once on her forehead before embracing her in a proper hug.

    Brendan turned towards the terminal, stopped, and turned back. “I mean it, Gwen. You need me, you call. I’ll never say no.”

    They shared a smile and, with a final nod to Professor Ferguson, Brendan disappeared into the terminal.

 

The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Five

Here’s a little Christmas gift from me to you: the penultimate chapter of The Dagger of Tiamat. Odds are you have forgotten what has come before, so feel free to refresh your memory here. I would love to close out the year with the final chapter, but let’s take this one step at a time. Enjoy!

The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Five

Summer Wright stared at the computer screen. The lines of code stared back. Mocking her.

She’d been coding since high school, almost a decade, so blocks were nothing new. That didn’t make every single one any less annoying than the one that came before it. Summer had designed websites and apps for everyone from local school boards to large retail chains. She even built a blog for her grandfather, giving him a place to write down all of the stories he had told her growing up, from old Apache traditions to war stories from his time in the Marines.

This new project was just something to kill time. Something silly. It was supposed to guess your favorite ‘90s cartoon based on your beverage preferences, but all of the responses kept coming up Angry Beavers.

“This is so annoying,” she sighed. She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes before reaching for the bag of stale tortilla chips she always kept in the top drawer of her desk. “I’ve written code that can hijack the entire infrastructure of a city, but I’ve been staring at this stupid thing for over an hour.”

She stuffed a few chips into her mouth and opened a new window on one of her auxiliary monitors. A funny animal video might be just what she needed to shake this block loose. Leaning back, she let herself get lost in a video of a herd of miniature goats frolicking in some kind of child’s playground.

The video was halfway through its third loop when Summer’s phone rang. The Indiana Jones theme ringtone told her who was calling.

“Brendan,” she said. “What’s up, dude? How’s London?”

“London’s great, Summer,” Brendan Finn responded. “Met my old professor and–” he paused– “and an old friend I was not expecting.”

Summer felt a little tug, like suddenly remembering something that had once been very important to her. “An old friend?” she teased.

Brendan sighed. “An old girlfriend, okay?”

“Sorry, dude,” Summer laughed. “Telepath.”

Brendan filled her in on what had been going on in London, from the reappearance of Gwen Sinclair to the fire at the Pierson house and the sudden disappearance of Malcolm Pierson.

“Tell me about this dagger thing again,” Summer finally said.

“Summer, man, look, we don’t really have a lot of time here,” Brendan was talking fast, like he did when he was trying to come up with a plan. “Malcolm is somewhere in the British Isles, possessed by an evil artifact, and with a giant hard-on to destroy the world as we know it.”

“I’m good,” Summer said, “but I don’t think I can find some random British dude I’ve never met before.”

“I don’t need Summer the telepath. I need Summer the hacker.”

“Shit, dude. That I can do.” Summer sat up straight and pulled her keyboard into her lap. She closed the goat video and minimized the window where she had been writing her code. Three new windows immediately popped up across her three monitors. “Okay,” she said, “Malcolm, what? P-I-E-R-”

“S-O-N.”

“Got it.” She studied the lines of text that filled her central monitor. “Oh, there are a lot of Malcolm Piersons in the UK. We gotta narrow this down.” Her fingers danced across her keyboard. “You said he was born in Hertfordshire, right? And he’d be around your age? So, let’s say your year of birth plus or minus five.”

The other screens filled with data. Birth certificates, banking and financial information, real estate holdings, and education records. As Summer narrowed the parameters she was searching, more and more data disappeared from her monitors.

“Boom!”

“I know that boom,” Brendan said. “What have you got?”

“I found a Malcolm Pierson, born in Hertfordshire. He’s three years older than you,” Summer started. “The education checks out. He was hospitalized around the time you did your semester in London. And–”

“And?”

“And he just used his credit card to pay for a hotel room in–” she tapped a few keys– “North Kessock, Scotland. Wherever the crap that is?”

“North Kessock?” Brendan repeated. He said it again and Summer could hear muttering in the background on the other end. “Thanks, Summer. I owe you. Big.”

“Don’t mention it, dude. Bring me back something cool and we’re even.”

#

Brendan hung up the phone and looked at Ferguson and Gwen. “So, Scotland?”

Gwen nodded. “North Kessock is a village about two miles north of Inverness. A right proper highland village.”

“More important than that,” Ferguson said, waving the others to join him by the table.

He was standing over an open book, one that looked to be over a hundred years old. When Brendan and Gwen joined the professor, they could see the book was open to a map of Scotland. The map was a copy of a much older, hand-drawn map. A few prominent cities were named: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness. The map’s most interesting feature were a series of lines that crisscrossed the country, seemingly at random.

“According to this map,” Ferguson said, jabbing a finger at the page, “three ley lines intersect in a wooded area just north of the village.”

“That’s where Malcolm is going,” Gwen said.

Brendan nodded. “Let’s go punch that psycho loser in the mouth.”

#

Professor Filibuster and the…Dragons?

Another snippet of an idea of a thing that never went much further. Maybe one of these days…

#

The Captain watched with growing consternation as the stranger pranced across the deck of his airship. His long, ungainly legs carried him from the port railing to the starboard and back, his spindly arms flailing about as he muttered to himself.

    The stranger had come aboard in Cardiff with a letter of marque signed by the newly-crowned Queen, although he was certainly no pirate. “I’ll be going as far west as you’re sailing, Captain,” he had said in a cheery tone, adding “perhaps a tad less.” He had kept to himself, mostly, studying the stars above at night and staring at the billowing clouds below during the day. The only belongings he brought with him–other than the outlandish clothes on his back–was a battered leather satchel covered in grease stains and scorch marks. The Captain was certain he had seen the hole from a musket ball, as well.

    “Sir!” The Captain had emerged from the wheelhouse moments ago and was now slowly making his way towards the bow. “Sir,” he called again. “Please. We’re heading into a nasty patch of weather.”

    The stranger paused mid-stride. Spinning on his heel, the tails of his too-large overcoat twirling about him, he turned to face the Captain. “Really? Are you sure?”

    “Aye,” was the only reply the Captain gave. He started barking orders at his crew, who jumped into action without question.

    Dodging the crewmen as they ran about their duties, the stranger approached the Captain. “Thunder? Flashes of lightning? Swirling, howling winds?” The Captain narrowed his eyes and nodded once in reply.

    The stranger shook his head of bright orange hair, swatting away the Captain’s response with a long-fingered hand. “Nothing as commonplace as a storm. Something magnificent. Something wondrous,” he said, his green eyes wide with excitement.

    “You’re a madman.”

    “Professor Reynard Quincy Filibuster is many things, sir. A madman is not one of them.” He stormed off, stopped after a few steps and turned around. “Actually, now that I think about it, maybe you’re right. Yes, yes. I like it. Professor Reynard Quincy Filibuster: Madman. Very good. Thank you, Captain.”

    Professor Filibuster returned to the port railing. He reached into the pocket of his pinstripe trousers and pulled out a pair of goggles. Once the goggles were in place, he leaned over the side. He hung like that, head over the side of the ship and skinny legs pointing up toward the sky, for several minutes. Eventually his head popped back up, a wide grin showing off his slightly over-sized front teeth. “Irregular,” was all he said.

    The Captain couldn’t argue with that. “Did you hear me, Captain? I said it’s too irregular. The time between what you think is lightning and what you assume is thunder.”

    The Professor took a pocket watch from his vest and studied the face. He glanced up at the Captain for a second before returning his attention to the watch. “Three seconds,” he said, holding up a finger. He continued to announce the time between each flash of lightning and the corresponding clap of thunder. “Now six. Four seconds that time. Oh, ten seconds.”

    Scurrying across the deck, the Professor collected his satchel and checked to make sure it was fastened before throwing it over his shoulder. He attached his pocket watch to a strap on his wrist, so he’d have both hands free, but could continue to keep time. He picked up the airship’s mooring line, played out several yards, and then tied it around his waist.

    “What are you doing? What’s going on?”

    “What’s going on?” Filibuster asked. He had climbed up onto the portside railing, his arms stretched out at his side to help him balance. “Dragons, my good man,” he said. “Dragons.”

    And he was gone.

The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Four

Do you remember what happened the last time? What’s the deal with that sword-wielding redhead? Who is the Champion of Avalon? Answers await you, gentle reader, in:

 The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Four

Brendan took in the vision before him. Gwen Sinclair, his college girlfriend, decked out in some kind of eldritch armor. Complete with sword and what appeared to be an enchanted cloak.

“I’m guessing this–” he waved his hands around to indicate Gwen’s new appearance– “is why you disappeared at the end of the semester.”

Gwen nodded. Her armor dissolved back into her modern clothing and she sat back down on the sofa.

“My mother,” she said. “Mom was seriously wounded in a battle with a rakshasa. The Healers of Avalon were concerned she would never fully recover, so I was summoned home.”

“Avalon? The Arthurian Avalon?” Brendan turned to Ferguson, hoping the professor would throw him some kind of a lifeline, but the older man was listening to Gwen with rapt attention.

“Yes and no. Avalon is an extradimensional realm, a waypoint between our world and the Otherworld of Celtic myth and legend. It’s a garrison, of sorts. A bulwark acting as the first line of defense between our world and the darker dimensions.”

“And you’re from there?”

“Don’t be stupid, Finn. I’m from Scotland.”

Brendan shrugged. “I walked right into that, didn’t I?”

She smiled. “Since the beginning of time, the women of my family have been called to Avalon to act as protectors of the mortal realms. We stand between the shadows and the light. We fight the things of nightmares. We are the Champions of Avalon.”

“I was a Knight of Columbus.”

“Finn!”

“Sorry. Sorry.”

Gwen continued: “My mother was getting older. Slower. She was almost one hundred and twenty when I started training, eventually she would fall in battle. So, I spent the last five years studying mystical and martial combat. Shortly after I took my mother’s place as Champion, I felt the sinister pull of the Dagger of Tiamat–”

“And that’s when our Ms. Sinclair contacted me,” Ferguson added. “And I called you, Brendan.”

“Okay, you guys are clearly in the driver’s seat here, so what’s the plan?”

Ferguson lifted himself out of his chair and headed straight for the bookcase by the door that led to the flat’s small kitchen. He ran a finger along the spines on one shelf, then a lower one. He finally located the book he was searching for–a battered, leather-bound tome–and pulled it from the bookcase.

“Ms. Sinclair and I believe that our best course of action would be to focus our search on the well-known mystical sites across the British Isles.”

The professor opened the book and laid it on the table between them. Although yellowed with age, the pages clearly showed a map of the British Isles. Red dots marked many of the stone circles, burial mounds, and cairns scattered across England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and numerous other islands. Brendan was familiar with many of these sites, neolithic Britain being one of his major interests back in college.

“Great,” he said. “Where do we start?”

“On that, we’re not entirely certain,” Ferguson said with a resigned sigh.

Brendan looked at Gwen. “Wait. I thought you could feel the– What did you call it? The pull of the dagger.”

“No longer. Once the Dagger of Tiamat was reunited with Malcolm, it fell silent. They could be anywhere.”

Brendan removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. “I’m going to ignore the way you’re referring to the dagger like it’s a living thing,” he said.

“It’s not uncommon for magical items to develop a certain level of sentience,” Ferguson said. “The Dagger of Tiamat is certainly capable of independent thought. Among other things.”

“Not helping,” Brendan growled. “Look, under the right circumstances, I could track Malcolm, no problem. But I need something to work with.”

“We could start at the remains of the Pierson home,” Ferguson offered.

“No!” Gwen stood, her eyes and fingertips crackling with an unearthly energy. “We don’t have time to stumble around England, checking every place Malcolm could be.”

“I have an idea,” Brendan said, fishing in his pocket for his phone. “Let me make a call. I have a friend who might be able to help. One way or another.”

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The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Three

I’m too embarrassed to say how long it has been since I posted a new installment of “The Dagger of Tiamat.” But, I managed to post the third part of the story before the end of the year, so I’m calling it a win. Read the first two parts here and here.

The Dagger of Tiamat, Part Three

“Okay, so what is the Dagger of Tiamat?”

     They had traded the dimly-lit pub for Professor Ferguson’s flat, which occupied the top two floors of a Georgian townhouse across from Russell Square. Brendan and Gwen were seated on a sofa in the parlor, a bookcase-lined room that looked out onto the street. Ferguson was sitting in a high-backed leather chair across from them. Judging from the stack of books on the side table, that was probably where the Professor spent most of his free time.

     “Would either of you like something to eat?” Ferguson asked, shrugging out of his tweed jacket. “I’m afraid I don’t entertain much, but I might have a little something in the kitchen.”

     “No thanks, Professor. I’m good,” Brendan said. Was Ferguson stalling or just being very British?

     “I’m fine, Professor,” Gwen said. “I think it’s best that we tell Finn what’s going on.”

     Finally. Brendan leaned back and looked at his old friends.

     “The Earth is a nexus,” Gwen began. “It’s a crossroads, of sorts, where countless different dimensions intersect. And, in certain places, the barriers between Earth and these other dimensions are thin enough to pass through.”

     “O-kay.”

     “Interactions between Earth and these different dimensions account for the myriad of gods and goddesses that have been worshipped by cultures around the world.”

     “Gods are real?”

     “In a sense,” she replied. “Many of these extradimensional beings possess powers and abilities that would have amazed and terrified early humans. The natural reaction would be to worship these beings as gods.”

     Brendan nodded. It had often been theorized that many of the myths and legends from around the world had been inspired by metahuman activity. This was as good an explanation as that.

     “But,” Gwen continued, “where there are gods, there are also demons. The most powerful of these beings are often called Old Ones or Elder Gods. Vile creatures of unimaginable power and unspeakable cruelty.”

     “This is where the Dagger of Tiamat comes in, right?”

     “The Dagger of Tiamat is a relic from a darker time, a time when cults of greedy, black-hearted men and women worshipped these creatures. They performed dark rituals, seeking to curry favor with powerful beings in return for power, wealth, and influence.”

     “Politicians?”

     Gwen scowled. “Finn, this is serious.”

     Brendan raised his hands in surrender. “Sorry,” he said. “So, it’s just a magical item, right? No biggie. We’ve dealt with that kinda thing before, Gwen.”

     The thought of the adventures they shared in the past brought a smile to Gwen’s lips, then it was gone. “This is worse than any of that, Finn. This is bigger than the vampires, the zombies, the evil sorcerers, the cursed keep left signs.”

     “Worse than the transient mystery house disguised as a phone box?”

     “Much.”

     “You see, Brendan,” Ferguson interjected, “the dagger is a conduit of sorts. It’s a way to draw power from one of these Old Ones through a dimensional barrier.”

     “Unfortunately,” Gwen added, “it’s supposed to be used as a part of a ritual involving several people. The Old One’s power is supposed to be dispersed, not channeled into a single individual. Pierson– Malcolm, well he’s basically been mainlining power from the Old Ones for five years.”

     “That sounds bad.”

     Ferguson nodded. “Quite. We fear that Malcolm’s disappearance this close to the solstice–”

     “When many of these dimensional barriers are at their weakest,” Gwen added.

     “–could be an indication that he’s planning something big.”

     “Big? How big?”

     “If he has enough power,” Gwen said, “he could theoretically tear a hole in one of these barriers and allow these Old Ones to invade our dimension.”

     Brendan exhaled. “That’s a big Twinkie.”

     “I need to stop this, Finn.”

     “Wait. What? Why you? I could call in the Cape-and-Cowl Club. They love this kinda stuff.”

     Gwen shook her head. “It has to be me, Finn.”

     “Why?”

     She stood, her sundress, leggings, and boots suddenly replaced by a long shirt of gleaming chainmail, cinched at the waist by a thick leather belt. A dark green cloak, emblazoned with glowing symbols, hung from her shoulders. A gauntleted hand rested on the hilt of the sword that hung at her side. Her skin glowed like the summer sun, making her red hair appear aflame.

     “Why, Finn? Because it’s my destiny.”

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Top 10 Fictional Characters I Wouldn’t Mind Snogging at Midnight: 2016 Edition

It worked last year, so might as well do it again.

1. Cable McCrory

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A snarky computer expert with an endless supply of flannel? Yeah, not my type at all.

2. Claire Temple

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I hear she likes coffee…

3. Jamie Campbell

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Spunky, redhead journalist? Sold. Plus, she clearly has a thing for brilliant-but-arrogant assholes…so, win.

4. Jesse Quick

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Love a woman in uniform.

5. Jessica Jones

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Jessica would snap me in half before the clock finished striking midnight. So. Worth. It.

6. Patterson

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We’d take a break from the Twilight Zone marathon…

7. Wanda Maximoff

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Maybe I didn’t fully get over my Goth/The Craft phase.

8. Jane Porter

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I regret nothing.

9. Ellie Bishop

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A quirky genius with an eidetic memory and a love of food? Yes, good.

10. Karen Page

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Drawn to closed-off men with deep psychological issues. Score!

BONUS: Lana Lang

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Ginger. Engineer. Superhero.