It is the early hours of the morning, still dark. A strong fire fills the air of the roundhouse with thick smoke, as inside the mud walls and thatched straw roof a child is born. Caoimhé’s screams fall away and almost immediately the child starts bawling, grasping at the air.
Pwyll feels all tension and worry drain out of him looking at the child’s face. It’s a boy, his son, and they agree to call him Dáithí. He is their new beginning, everything that has passed before now little more than a dark memory to put behind them. The wide eyes of the infant are open upon a new life.
But that isn’t how it happened, he remembers. What came next…
No sooner does he recall the events that followed the birth than the dark shadow appears at the door. Tall, broad shouldered, with long brown hair and a face that closely resembled Pwyll’s own.
“Hello little brother.” He says, as if he were just there for a casual visit and there were nothing unusual about his presence.
“Nuadhu… How…?” Pwyll asks.
But he knows how. Back then the creature that his brother had become was called an akhkharu. Nuadhu is no longer alive, no longer human.
He has eyes only for Pwyll. He forces him to his knees, opens a vein, makes him drink. Only then does he remember the woman and the child. Dáithí is spared, the smallest of mercies. Caoimhé is not. Her blood splatters Pwyll’s face and he cries out in sorrow and despair.
“I am sorry Pwyll, but this was necessary.”
“Because there are some fates worse than death, brother.”
Then he grins and in an instant he is no longer human, eyes red and wings spread wide. They are not in a roundhouse any more, but on top of a hill, surrounded by the ruins of an ancient fort. Pwyll remembers it, but the last time he stood here it was not Nuadhu who stood opposite him.
“I was always coming back, little brother.”
“There are some fates worse than death.”
Pwyll sat upright as soon as his eyes opened. He could feel the sweat soaking through his hair and running down his neck and back. He jumped out of bed, shoved the bedroom window open and went straight into the bathroom to set the shower running.
“It was just a dream,” he told himself. But his heart and his breath refused to slow. He knew differently.
He got in the shower, closed his eyes and let the hot water run over him. When his arms and legs stopped shaking, he opened his eyes and blinked against the light in the bathroom. He washed and dried quickly, then went back into the bedroom to get dressed.
Nuadhu’s words wouldn’t leave his mind.
‘I was always coming back.’
“Are you sure?” Jack MacArthur asked just as he heard the latch on his front door go. He stepped out into the hallway as his wife, Abbie, entered and waved at her.
“I’m afraid so,” Abelard said on the other end of the phone. “The state of Tel Megiddo this morning is testimony to that.”
Taking note of the mobile phone in his hand, Abbie came over and gave Jack a quick peck on the cheek. ‘Tea?’ She mouthed.
He nodded. On the phone, he said, “How bad? I mean earthquakes aren’t unheard of over there, are they?”
“No, but it’s clear even from initial evidence that this is no ordinary earthquake. They’re already saying this was a ten on the Richter scale, and the hill of Megiddo has become a crater. Yet the surrounding area, including the kibbutz of the same name, was virtually untouched but for a couple of aftershocks.”
Jack stepped out into the conservatory, opening the door into the back garden to let the air flow before sitting down. “So it’s more like a collapse or an explosion than an earthquake?” There was a pop in the kitchen as the kettle reached a boil. “Which, of course, backs up your theory.”
He heard another voice on the other end of the line, then silence indicating Abelard had put his hand over the receiver. After a moment, he came back, “It gets worse. We’ve just had confirmation that their Sentinel, Gilad, was killed. This can’t be a coincidence. We’ll hopefully have more to report soon.”
“In the meantime?” He looked up and mouthed ‘cheers’ as Abbie placed two cups of tea on the end table before sitting down.
“In the meantime, carry on as normal – though make sure your Outfit are aware of developments. Once we know more, we can adapt orders as necessary.” A short pause. “Now, I’ve got other Outfit leaders to brief, so I’ll say farewell for now Jack.”
“Okay. Bye Francis.” As he hung up, he saw Abbie smile and returned it. “So, was Penny alright when you left her?”
“Yeah, she forgot I was there as soon as she said hello to Grace and Olivia.” Abbie laughed. “I think I’ll be the one going spare without her rather than the other way round.” The smile disappeared from her face. “I got a call off our Lydia on the way back.”
Jack leaned forward and put a hand on her knee. “Everything alright?”
“No, she –” She cleared her throat. “Well, one of her mates died last night. Murdered. Some of her other friends found the body.”
“That’s gotta be rough. Is she alright?”
“I think so. She’s made of stern stuff, our kid. Plus her and her mates are all very close so I’m sure they’ll support each other.” Her eyes all of a sudden became very distant. “But, I mean, it must have been horrible. It sounds like one of your cases, actually.”
“Yeah,” Abbie re-focused her gaze on Jack, “apparently whoever killed this girl bit her neck and drank her blood.” She shuddered. “It’s horrible just thinking about it.”
He rubbed her knee. “Then don’t. This’ll all get dealt with. But it’s our first weekend off together in yonks and we should make the most of it.” He raised his eyebrows. “Especially since Penny’s out the house till tonight.”
She giggled as he reached over and kissed her neck. Just by running his hands across her back he could feel the tension fall from her shoulders. But even as it did he could feel himself tensing up. It did sound like one of his cases and no doubt he could expect a call about it later.
Several hours later, Jack pulled back the sheet to expose the corpse’s neck and shoulders. As his wife had described, she had been bitten on the neck. The flesh around the bite was raised and red, the skin torn and some strips of it hanging loose.
He pressed one finger from each hand – covered by surgical gloves – against the corners of the wound and examined it more closely. The bite marks came from teeth far sharper than a human’s, either fangs or filed to a point.
“Shit.” Jack muttered.
He turned his attention to the corpse’s mouth, and it was clear that blood and vomit had been wiped away. He pried the mouth open, ran a finger across and did a quick visual examination of the teeth. After a second check confirmed nothing out of the ordinary, he sighed and took his hands away from the mouth.
Nothing more to see, he pulled the sheet back over her head and left the room. After removing his gloves and mask, washing his hands, and changing back out of medical scrubs, he took out his phone.
When Mike answered Jack said, “Gather everyone together for a meeting tonight. Abelard’s given me some worrying information, which I can’t go into here, but there’s also a local problem which I think needs to be dealt with quickly before it gets out of hand.”
“You at the mortuary, investigating that attack from last night?”
“Yeah – when was the last one we had like that?”
There was a pause, then the sound of paper rustling. “I remember we had a brief spate of them in…here we are, 2011. After that, nothing out in the open. They got good at hiding.”
“Well it looks like they’re getting cocky.” Jack said. “We’ll discuss it properly tonight.”
He hung up the phone and looked over at the pathologist at the desk nearby. He quickly went back to pretending to read the paper. Jack shook his head and made his way out of the building.
Pwyll was surrounded by a pile of old books on the floor in his living room when his doorbell rang. It took him a moment to realise what the sound was; he never had visitors, and it had been too long since he’d had the kind of acquaintances who might be inclined to visit him.
The doorbell rang again and he forced himself to his feet in order to answer it. He opened the door and was confronted with the sight of a woman he hadn’t seen for a very long time.
“Anael.” He said.
Her clothes were different, as was to be expected, but everything else was exactly as he remembered from the last time he had seen her. Her hair fell in soft brown waves and her dark skin had a golden glow to it. She wore a coat whose tail came past her knees, telling him she was concealing a short sword.
A memory rose in his mind.
The red and black glow between them had faded, the wind had vanished and they had stood facing each other in the empty ruins of Tel Megiddo. She had swallowed, tears rolling down her cheeks. She hadn’t said a word, only shook her head and turned away. He had been unable to move or to do anything but let her go, vanishing from the hill and from his life.
“Can I come in?”
His reverie vanished and he blinked several times. “Uh, yeah. Sure.”
Anael stepped across the threshold and wrapped her arms around him. He returned the embrace, still feeling numb as though none of this was real. After she broke the hug, he led her through to his living room.
She glanced at the pile of books on the floor then back at Pwyll. “You’ve heard about Tel Megiddo?”
“Yeah. After I saw it in a dream. That’s why you’re here, I take it?”
“Yes.” Her eyes glistened. “Pwyll, I’m sorry. I never should have walked away.”
“Don’t worry. It was a lifetime ago.” He said, though the memory was still fresh in his mind.
“Several. But that doesn’t make it right.”
She knelt to pick up one of the books on the floor. She wouldn’t meet his eyes.
He decided to let the subject drop, for now. “So it’s definitely true then?”
She looked up at him. “The earthquake happened under a blood red moon and was followed by a meteor shower. That’s not all, though.”
He had known Anael long enough, despite the gap since he had last seen her, that he could see her hesitation in what she was about to tell him. He crouched next to her.
She stared at him for several moments before dropping her eyes. “There’s a new Champion.”
“I should have been there. Teaching him about his destiny and training him to use his powers. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to go back there after so long. I’m still not sure I’m ready.”
“It’s okay, I haven’t been back either. Not since –”
“You didn’t have to.” She stood up and walked several paces away from him. “I felt this new Champion’s birth; he’s twenty three now. That’s more than enough time, and I stayed away because I couldn’t handle it. It might be too late now, because we don’t know who else could have gotten to him first.”
Pwyll stood up. “It’s not too late.” He said. “Come on.”
“Come on where?”
“Liverpool. I think I know who might be able to help us.”
“What’s the urgency then?” Jack asked Mike as he entered the library a day later. “And why didn’t you raise it at the meeting last night?”
Inside, sitting at the table in the middle of the room were a man and a woman he didn’t recognise. Jack walked to the table and pulled out a chair, but didn’t sit down.
“Jack, this is Anael and Pwyll.” Mike said, stumbling over the pronunciation of p-wool-th. “Abelard phoned and told us to expect them; Pwyll helped him take care of a lindworm down in Surrey a few years back, apparently. This is Jack MacArthur, head of this Outfit.”
Jack shook hands with them. “Pwyll? Unusual name.”
The newcomer shrugged. “My parents were big on Welsh mythology.”
“I see. So what can we do for you?”
“Do you know anything about the Champion of Man?”
Jack shared a look with Mike, then shook his head. “You’ve got us at a loss.” He said. “Care to tell us what you know about this Champion of Man and why it’s important?”
“A Champion of Man is basically someone born with power. Kind of like a Sentinel, only a lot stronger and also a lot rarer.” Anael said. “We believe there is a Champion here in Liverpool, although he probably doesn’t know that he is one. The reason he’s here now is that there’s something bad coming.”
Jack recalled the discussion at the previous night’s meeting. “This something bad,” he said, “does it have anything to do with what happened at Tel Megiddo?”
“Abelard said that it was a gateway to hell.”
“It is. It’s been opened.”
Jack went cold. “So what got out?”
“Not what.” Pwyll said. “Who. His name is Nuadhu Iarraindorn.”
Jack didn’t recognise the name. But from the look on Pwyll’s face, Jack knew that it was bad news.