I’m very happy to unveil the latest short story from the Echoes in the Past series. It is set ten years prior to the events in the main series and is intended to shed some light (and shade) on the history of the ever so enigmatic Father Ash. There are no significant spoilers in this offering, it can be read before or after Ghosts of Winter. I hope you enjoy it! If you like what you read, the rest of the series can be purchased on Kindle or in print from Amazon.
From the Ashes
The boy was dead weight on Father Ash’s arm. Boy. He was in his late thirties with two children of his own, but he was still a boy to Father Ash. He raised his hand to knock on the black door, but before his knuckles touched the shining new paint, the door was flung wide. Flames-First-Guardian filled the doorway, his face as unreadable as ever. He held the door wide, and stood back for Father Ash to drag the limp body inside. The hall was dark but a light was on in the kitchen, and Father Ash made straight for it.
‘Thanks for doing this,’ he said softly over his burdened shoulder. Flames shut the door and followed down the hall.
‘Unconscious,’ Father Ash replied hastily. He dropped the boy into a chair, and let his head fall forward and thump onto the table. Flames approached, and peered closely at the unshaven face.
‘Yes, I thought that was best.’
‘Are you absolutely certain?’
‘Yes,’ Father Ash replied, his shoulders sinking. Suddenly the gravity of the situation seemed overwhelming. ‘His name has changed.’
‘His name changed?’
Father Ash nodded wearily.
Flames looked at him, his eyes narrowed. He swept out of the room, and returned a moment later with his tattoo kit. Father Ash caught his wrist and glared at him, his ancient eyes boring into his best friend’s.
‘I have to, you know that,’ Flames said, his voice soft and kind. Father Ash grudgingly released Flames’ arm. He watched, his mind racing, trying to formulate a plan, as Flames tattooed a rough spiral on the back of the boy’s neck. He ran his hand over his neat, grey beard and took a shaking breath. ‘Do you still want to store his soul?’ Flames’ asked tentatively.
‘Yes,’ he replied without hesitation.
‘There are candles in that drawer.’ Flames jerked his head towards one of the kitchen units. Father Ash went to it, and scooped out a handful of thick, black candles. He placed them around the kitchen, then lit them, his hands shaking. The buzzing of the tattoo needle stopped, drawing Father Ash’s attention. The boy stirred slightly as Flames moved away from him. Father Ash went to him and looked down. How had this happened? The choice that lay ahead of him now was excruciating, it was no choice really. He was a Hunter, and the boy was Spiral Hand, with a glowing name on his spirit for anyone who could read it, which was probably every other alpha in Caerton. Not to mention the fact that he had gone completely insane. He couldn’t be hidden, he would have to be killed, and it was his job to do it.
Flames placed a brass dish full of incense on the table in front of the boy, and the gentle smoke filled the air quickly. Father Ash stepped back to the door into the hallway, anxious not to become intoxicated. Flames placed a rectangular canvas on a frame on the table, and some oil paints, his movements quick and precise, well practised. Father Ash realised that his friend was holding his breath. When everything was set up, Flames retreated to the doorway and placed an arm around Father Ash’s shoulders. He stiffened at the awkward gesture. Affection had never been natural for either of them. Flames removed his arm and cleared his throat.
The boy stirred again and this time his eyes fluttered open. They were red and dilated, and watered profusely when he blinked. He began to sit up, looking around at his surroundings. His gaze settled on the two odd shifters in the doorway.
‘Father?’ he croaked.
‘I’m here,’ Father Ash replied and took a step forward. Flames thrust his arm across his chest and stopped him. Father Ash glanced at him, frustration leaping into his throat in the form of a low growl.
‘The incense, it’ll put him into a trance. You don’t want to get too close.’
Spirals-of-Bright-Agony stared across the room, his eyes glazed and unfocused. He turned to look at the blank canvas in front of him and slowly lifted his hand to pick up the brush. He gently dipped it into some red paint, and pressed it to the canvas. Very slowly, he began to make marks, first in red, then green and yellow. Circles at first, and then spirals. His pace began to increase, he used his fingers as well as the brush, smudging and blurring the colours.
Father Ash watched in awe. He thought, just for an instant, that he could see energy passing from Spirals’ body into the painting, rather like heat haze. He worked in a frenzy, paint splattered his clothes and smeared on his face from him wiping his hands across it. Sweat beaded on his forehead and neck, and he muttered continuously under his breath. Father Ash had never seen him like this, it was deeply unsettling, and he struggled to stay back.
The boy tossed the brush down and slumped back in the chair. Flames moved forwards and scooped up the incense. He took it to the sink and ran water over it to snuff out the burning embers. Father Ash dashed to the boy and checked him over. He was staring down at the table, his face unrecognisable under the paint and strange, sour expression.
Father Ash glanced at the painting. It was a cacophony of colour and dizzying spirals. Just one brief glance was enough to make his head spin. He roughly hoisted the boy up out of the chair and marched him to the back door. Flames opened it and they filed out into the back garden. The sky was black and pricked with stars, but even the small garden with its high walls was not private enough for what must be done. Father Ash stepped across the veil, willing himself and his prisoner into the shifter realm of Hepethia. The world lurched and spun around them, when it came back into focus the garden looked much the same, it had brick walls and the ground was completely paved. The sky above was a rich, velvety purple and there were so many stars that it was almost possible to make out the galaxy around them.
He shoved the boy into the centre of the garden, and he stumbled. Father Ash wiped his sweating palms on his crisp, grey trousers, and then reached over his shoulder to grasp the axe on his back. It was hidden in the world of humans, blended to his body to hide it from human eyes, but in Hepethia it regained its physical form. He slid it from its sheath, and gripped the hilt.
‘Why?’ he moaned, more to himself than anyone else.
Flames stepped across the veil, and stood silently by the door into the house.
‘Father?’ the boy whimpered, looking up at him. He really wasn’t a boy, he hadn’t been for a long time. Father Ash sniffed hard, and angrily swiped a tear from his cheek. He lifted his chest and took a deep breath.
‘Michael,’ Father Ash replied. He hadn’t used that name for the boy in over twenty years, it was the human name given to him by his mother.
‘Are you going to kill me, Father?’ The boy straightened up and smirked, no longer a simpering wretch.
‘You know I have to,’ Father Ash replied.
‘No,’ his son replied nonchalantly. ‘You have a choice. We could leave the city together.’
Father Ash allowed a small smile to creep onto his lips.
‘Slips-Through-Starlight, now known as Spirals-of-Bright-Agony, you have been found to be a member of the Spiral Hand. You know the sentence. Do you have any last words?’
A raven cawed overhead and landed lightly on the wall. It bobbed its head and watched over the proceedings. Father Ash acknowledged its presence with a slight nod, but didn’t allow himself to be distracted.
‘Everything I am today, I owe to you, Father.’ He smirked again and took a lazy step towards him. ‘Whatever you do tonight, execute me, or let me go, it will be sewing chaos and fear, it will be doing the work of the Spiral Hand.’
Father Ash cast a cautious eye towards Flames-First-Guardian, who wore a grim expression.
‘Kneel,’ he barked, pointing to the ground in front of him. Spirals-of-Bright-Agony’s smirk vanished and he flinched.
Flames took a step towards them, Father Ash held up his hand to stop him. He didn’t think restraint was necessary just yet. The boy’s face was frozen, there was fear in his eyes. He had really thought Father Ash would let him go, but he couldn’t do that. Whatever else he was, he was a Hunter. ‘Kneel,’ he said again.
Flames moved forward, and with a wave of his hand a large crystal erupted from the ground, bursting up from between the paving slabs. Father Ash grabbed Spirals roughly by the neck of his jacket and shoved him to his knees.
‘You can’t actually be serious?’ the boy cried, his frightened eyes imploring. Flames stepped closer and pushed Spirals down against the crystal. ‘Father?!’
Father Ash raised the axe. He looked at his son’s terrified face and faltered. Lightning flashed overhead, and he looked up to see thick clouds spiralling and obscuring the beautiful stars. ‘Tell Maisie to be strong if she changes,’ Spirals blurted out, his voice distorted by his cheek pressing against the crystal. ‘She’s just a kid.’ His voice fell quiet, mournful.
Father Ash let his axe drop to his side, and he knelt down beside his son.
‘I will. I really don’t have a choice in this. You know that.’
Spirals acknowledged him by closing his eyes for a moment. Father Ash stood and raised his axe again, it felt so heavy, despite his supernatural strength. He sucked back a sob that threatened to escape, and heaved a sigh of resolve. ‘I return you to the tender arms of Artemis.’ He swung the axe down, hitting his mark cleanly. There was a sickening thunk as the head hit the ground. He wiped his axe on the back of Spirals’ jacket and sheathed it on his back.
‘Are you all right?’ Flames asked cautiously.
‘Fine,’ he replied stiffly. ‘We should bury him.’
Flames knelt on the ground and placed his hands on the paving. The ground opened up in front of him, slabs disappeared, the crystal sank back into the earth, and Spirals’ body dropped with it to the ground. Father Ash closed his eyes. Too much confusion cluttered his mind, grief and rage warred within him. When he opened his eyes, there was a hole in the middle of the garden with a wooden box inside. Without a word, he and Flames gently lifted the body into the grave. He carefully retrieved the head and placed it respectfully in the centre of his son’s chest.
‘I can protect his bones here,’ Flames said quietly. The raven on the wall cawed again and took flight. Father Ash watched it go, knowing that it would report back to the others. He swallowed against a painful lump in his throat. They closed the coffin, and buried it by hand, only shaping Hepethia for the final touches, to conceal the grave. They left a square of earth uncovered and repaired the paving around it.
They crossed the veil and went into the kitchen. Flames poured them both a shot of whiskey and they toasted silently. Father Ash noticed a box on the table where the painting had been. ‘Don’t open it,’ Flames said sharply.
‘It absorbed his madness, nothing else.’
Father Ash nodded solemnly.
‘Okay. I’ll have to go before the others, I don’t know what their judgement will be. Will you look after it for me, please?’
Father Ash finished his drink and put the glass down on the worktop. He looked down and saw that his neat suit was covered in blood and dirt. He sighed.
‘Thank you, for everything.’
‘No problem. Good luck with the elders.’
Father Ash snorted and strode down the hall. As he reached the door he shifted form, his human limbs and body shrank away, his clothes disappeared and were replaced with fur. In place of the distinguished man was a grey cat, and he rubbed himself against the door. Flames opened it for him, and he trotted out without a backward glance.
‘I wondered when I would see you two,’ Father Ash said, casually opening his front door wide and striding away from it to put his coffee cup down on the table in the centre of the grand foyer. His shoes clipped on the marble floor and echoed around the cavernous space. The two visitors entered slowly and he could sense their apprehension. He smirked and went to the closet at the back of the hall to retrieve a jacket. As he slid it on, he turned to look at the awkward-looking shifters at the door. He sighed. ‘I’m coming willingly, as you can see. First Strike, you know me, I’m not going to try anything.’
‘I know, Alpha,’ First Strike replied, shifting his weight. He was six feet five inches of sheer muscle, one of Odin’s fiercest warriors, and a most valued member of Father Ash’s own pack, The Hand of God. Mjolnir beside him held a hand out, indicating for Father Ash to leave the manor ahead of them. Father Ash nodded and strode out through the door. There was a sleek black car waiting at the bottom of the grand steps, and he went to it. First Strike locked the house, and Mjolnir jogged quickly down the steps and opened the back door of the car before Father Ash could. He was always a gentleman, but Father Ash had seen him in combat and knew that a deadly fighter was concealed behind that gentle demeanour.
It was a crisp winter morning, the sky was blue and the car sped away from Fenstoke Lodge. Father Ash watched his home out of the window, knowing he may never see it again.
Mjolnir drove the car, First Strike sat in the back beside his Alpha, neither speaking or even looking at each other. The elders had sent two of the strongest shifters in Caerton to escort him, but it was a token gesture, if they had really believed him to be a flight risk, they would have sent six.
They arrived on the territory of The Watch. The car pulled up at the back of the museum, the three of them got out, and Father Ash straightened his shirt and jacket. First Strike and Mjolnir flanked him and they filed into the back entrance of the museum. It was usually fairly quiet mid-week, but Father Ash could hear people bustling about somewhere beyond the back passageway that they entered. Mjolnir led the way to a stair case leading down into the belly of one of Caerton’s oldest buildings.
Half way down the dark staircase, he felt the veil ripple, and was forced across it in Mjolnir’s wake. The stairs ended abruptly and the light was blinding. It took several seconds for his eyesight to adjust. He had been here a dozen times before, but never on the receiving end of judgement. It was a courtroom unlike any in the human world. The floor was smooth, clear quartz, the walls dazzling white, and blazing sunlight filled the space, even though there was a solid roof overhead. Stone benches lined the room on all sides and straight ahead of the stone steps from which they had entered was a dais with a crystalline judge’s bench, long enough for six people to sit behind.
Many of Caerton’s shifters were gathered on the benches, chattering earnestly amongst themselves. He caught sight of the rest of his pack, gathered together to the right of the dais. Crimson was enigmatic, her lips were pursed and her eyes narrowed as she watched him. Sentinel-of-the-Steps sat beside her whispering frantically, but she didn’t react to anything he said. The others watched him silently. If he didn’t come out of this with an acquittal, it would very likely be Crimson that would take his place as Alpha of The Hand of God. First Strike gave him a pat on the back and they exchanged grave looks, then his pack mate left him in the centre of the court to join the rest of their pack. Mjolnir remained by his side.
His fellow elders sat behind the bench. Follows-the-Rain sat in the centre, her watery grey eyes looked tired. Either side of her were Theodore Harris and Red Scythe, both looking serious and determined. Ragged Edge sat beside his brother-in-arms, his grizzled old face betrayed him, Father Ash could tell he would rather be anywhere else. On the opposite end, an empty seat between him and Theodore, was Fortune, sat with his elbows on the bench and his hands over his eyes.
The empty seat would be his, if this were any other trial. He had long thought that he ought to sit in Theodore’s place, joint centre with Follows-the-Rain. He was older than Theodore, and certainly played a more central role in protecting Careton, but the tradition was that the Head Hunter could not take a central seat on the judging council.
It was rare that all of the city’s elders gathered like this, cooperation had never been their strong suit. Most crimes of their kind were dealt with in-pack. Sometimes it was considered wise for the city’s shifters to gather to discuss some imminent threat to all of them. Spiral Hand were not usually granted a trial, it was a Hunt, and execution upon capture was the usual course of action. Once in a blue moon, however, the council gathered here like this, if a case were not clear cut or if the suspect was, as in this case, a member of the council themselves.
Amongst the shifters were dozens of fae and demons, many were allies of the shifters in attendance, but others were eager spectators. Ravens and black birds perched on a beam over the dais, there as messengers of the court, and on a raised crystal seat behind the council of shifters was a figure in a black gown and iron mask, Chief Justicar, a demon of judgement and justice who presided over all matters of supernatural law in Caerton.
Follows-the-Rain banged a gavel on the crystalline bench, the sound echoed around the chamber like a bell.
‘Order! Order!’ she cried out in her clear voice, and the courtroom fell silent. ‘We are gathered here today to determine the guilt, or innocence of the accused. Father Ash, you were accused a month ago, by a member of this court, of membership of the Spiral Hand.’
Father Ash still didn’t know who had brought the charges, there was little transparency in shifter justice. He watched the council carefully now, but read nothing in any of their faces. His gut told him it had been Theodore, their rivalry went back decades, but he doubted he would ever have proof. ‘You pleaded your innocence, and since then a thorough investigation has been undertaken. I gather that new evidence has come to light in the last twenty-four hours. We will hear it now.’
Father Ash took a deep breath and steeled himself for what was to come. Flames-First-Guardian stood up from his seat to the left of the dais. Fortune finally uncovered his face and watched his pack mate descend the steps. He looked worried, Father Ash noted, his face was pale and clammy. Shadow’s Step and Speaks-with-Stone were sat where Flames had risen from, and also watched him nervously. The Blue Moon had always been good to Father Ash, Flames in particular had long been his friend and ally. They were two of a rapidly diminishing pool of Scroll Keepers, Caerton’s record keepers, and as such, shared almost all of the information they gathered. They would spend hours together in the Scroll Archive; making notes; recording stories of the deeds of fellow shifters; logging births, deaths and marriages. At times, though he was not a Hunter himself, Flames would assist Father Ash, as he had done the previous night.
Flames strode into the circle and gave Father Ash a reassuring nod before turning to face the council.
‘Late last night, the real Spiral Hand was uncovered. Father Ash brought him to me and we executed traditional justice. An envoy of the court bore witness.’ He indicated the ravens over the heads of the elders, and they all looked up. One of the ravens bobbed its head and cawed loudly. It ruffled its feathers and a few of them drifted to the floor.
‘He speaks the truth,’ came a voice out of the croak. A collective gasp rippled around the courtroom, and chatter instantly broke out. Follows-the-Rain banged her gavel again, which she had to do so several times before the crowd fell to order.
‘Who was it?’ Theodore’s voice called out over the remaining whispers. Silence fell, and Father Ash could feel all of the held breaths in the room.
‘Slips-Through-Starlight,’ Flames replied, a slight break in his voice. The courtroom erupted again. Follows-the-Rain turned to Red Scythe, and the two of them whispered to each other, unheard amidst the sea of noise. Father Ash felt his palms sweating, and his collar suddenly felt too tight. He was determined not to show any sign of discomfort, so he forced himself to ignore the sensations. He swallowed the hard lump in his throat, and locked eyes with Theodore, whose eyes were narrowed to slits as he studied Father Ash.
Fortune did not looked shocked, Father Ash guessed that Flames had told him in advance what had happened. Perhaps it was Fortune that had informed the others of a turn of events.
‘Is this true?’ Red Scythe shouted over the din. Grudgingly, the crowd grew quiet, to await Father Ash’s reply.
‘It is,’ he said, his voice holding steady. ‘I met with my son last night, and found that his true name had changed. He was no longer Slips-Through-Starlight, his name was Spirals-of-Bright-Agony. He was ranting and raving about Ragnarok, his mind lost to the chaos he served. I sought out a witness and performed my duty.’
‘You executed your own son?’ Theodore asked, his voice laced with scepticism.
‘I did,’ Father Ash replied. This time his voice did crack, and he allowed himself to loosen his collar. It wouldn’t hurt at this point for the court to see some emotion. There was more outcry around the court. Some of the demons looked positively gleeful at this news. Crimson and the rest of his pack gawked at him. His son had been one of their own, and this was the first they were hearing of both his betrayal and execution. He gave them an apologetic look, but it didn’t seem to soothe them.
‘Order! Order!’ Follows-the-Rain cried out. She was barely maintaining control of this session and everyone knew it. She was old, and although she was still respected, many of the younger shifters had doubts about her sanity. She was Alpha of the Storm Riders, who had long been keeping to themselves up there on the coast, different from the rest of Caerton’s shifters. Yet she had sat in the centre of the council of elders for decades and her wisdom and insight was second to none.
‘You could have brought him before us, which would have been more compelling. If we could have seen him for ourselves, ascertained the change in his true name and seen his madness, it might have made for a stronger case.’ Theodore spoke with his hand to his face, his long index finger caressing his cheek.
‘I wasn’t thinking of clearing my name,’ Father Ash replied. ‘I was doing my job. He was my son. What I had to do was incredibly difficult, and I knew that I couldn’t waiver. It had to be dealt with swiftly. How do I know that had I not killed him, had I kept him alive to bring before you, you wouldn’t have held that against me too?’
‘With all due respect,’ Fortune spoke up, addressing the elders to his left. ‘Father Ash’s actions speak volumes about his commitment to his role as Hunter. In my view, he has fully exonerated himself.’
‘I agree,’ said Red Scythe. Father Ash allowed himself to hope.
‘I must most strongly object,’ Theodore said, shaking his head. ‘It’s a ruse, and a poor one at that. Even if his son was truly Spiral Hand, he is tainted by association. How do we know he didn’t indoctrinate his own son? As far as I am concerned, he is guilty.’
‘There’s no proof,’ Ragged Edge said, an edge of frustration to his voice. ‘Only speculation. We have not had one shred of compelling evidence that Father Ash is Spiral Hand, only hearsay and scaremongering.’
Follows-the-Rain listened to her colleagues attentively. Technically, all voices on the council were equal, but everyone knew that it really always came down to her vote. Chief Justicar rose from his seat and floated down onto the gleaming floor. He bobbed across it towards Father Ash, who tried not to flinch as the tentacled demon approached. He set his jaw and waited for what he suspected was coming. The demon stopped two inches from him and snarled in his face. He sniffed hard, sucking in the air between them. He smelled rancid and Father Ash wrinkled his nose and leaned his head away from him. The demon clucked his tongue and slipped away from him, gliding back up to his seat.
‘He’s guilty of something,’ the Chief Justicar called out, his voice booming over all of the hushed chatter in the court. ‘He reeks of it. But guilty of what, I cannot say.’ Father Ash closed his eyes and waited. His chest felt tight and he could feel his pulse pounding in his temples.
‘In light of this new evidence and lack of any conclusive proof,’ Follows-the-Rain spoke, her voice soft but engaging. Silence fell. ‘I cannot rule a guilty verdict.’ The room erupted in noise, some cheers, but a lot of objections. Father Ash looked around to try and pick out the friendly and unfriendly reactions, but it was all happening too fast. ‘HOWEVER!’ The lead elder’s voice boomed out. ‘Due to the delicate nature of this case, and the genuine ambiguity over the accused’s loyalty, I am ordering you into exile, Father Ash, effective immediately. You will not be permitted to return to your pack, you will be accompanied to the city limits, and are forbidden to return within your lifetime. Do you understand?’
The reaction from the assembly was deafening. Father Ash could hear roaring in his ears, like holding a shell to them. He felt panic and devastation clawing at his chest and throat. A lifetime’s work and dedication obliterated in an instant. Friends turning their backs on him, enemies smirking down on him.
Thunder rose from within and the beast took control. His body shuddered and instantly transformed into a horrifying Agrius beast; half man, half bear. He roared, and the courtroom chatter descended into chaos and screaming.
He blinked as his senses returned to normal, there was no screaming, he was standing in his smart suit, perfectly calm amid a sea of jumbled voices. He allowed himself that moment to imagine what he would like to do, then took a deep breath and adjusted his jacket.
‘I do,’ he replied, his voice cool as ice. He turned and headed back towards the stairs, Mjolnir at his side. He didn’t spare anyone a parting glance, it was too great a risk. He accepted the judgement with the grace and poise for which he was well known. He knew where to go, he had a plan, he always had a plan.
The title of this post refers to the dubious US military tactic of imposing “this overwhelming level of Shock and Awe against an adversary on an immediate or sufficiently timely basis to paralyze its will to carry on”, in other words, bomb the shit out of the enemy until they’re too scared to fight. Nice.
Well, in a way, and to a lesser extent, really good horror and action fiction do this too. The audience is constantly afraid for the wellbeing of the heroes, never sure who is going to survive and who isn’t, and character losses feel almost as devastating as if they were real friends. The balance has to be right though, there has to be hope too, a reason to keep reading or watching. We don’t want to paralyse our audience and have them give up on our stories because they are too bleak.
I’m writing this in the wake of the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead, season 5. Don’t worry, no spoilers. This is my absolute favourite show on TV at the moment, but I have to confess, I nearly gave up on it in season 3. It was just too depressing, with not quite enough hope. I stuck with it though, and I’m glad I did. Season 5 has been similar and before the latest episode I was willing for something to go right for our protagonists for once. But the show is predictably grim, and I had little hope of things turning out well. The post credits sequence of the latest episode gave me what I felt was lacking in series 3… hope, a reason to keep watching, despite how devastated I felt as the credits rolled.
I strive for that level of connection with my readers, to move them. Echoes of the Past is undoubtedly a dark series, my characters go through hell, and hopefully take the reader with them. I want my readers to feel as though no character is safe from harm, they are fallible people with weaknesses, and live lives that are truly dangerous. When they go into battle against mighty demons, I want my readers to be afraid that someone might not come out of it alive.
Perhaps the master, or demon, of this sort of writing is George R. R. Martin. When you read A Song of Ice and Fire you know that even the mightiest hero is not safe, not immune to the force of the plot. This is a risk, of course, leading readers to form attachments to characters and then mercilessly killing them off, often in quite senseless ways. Readers, or viewers, may never forgive you, but for the ones that do, or who stick with your story regardless, it makes for true immersion and a wonderful experience.
If I can one day stir my readers to reactions like those watching or reading GRRM’s infamous “Red Wedding” scene for the first time, I will be a very happy author 😉
I love to hear from you. What book, film or TV show has the sort of hold on you that you have literally cried at a pivotal moment in the story?
If you’d like to see if my writing measures up, then grab your free copy of the first book in the Echoes of the Past series here.
Follow me on social media via these links: