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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.