Stalker and her pack eagerly await the reawakening of their powerful dragon ally, Unchained Lightning, while the city’s shifters speculate about the approach of war from the Furies, who encircle the city. Stalker faces even greater challenges as she juggles her human life and secret shifter existence. She must determine who her real enemies are and where she truly came from.
A deadly and personal attack on the Alpha’s human family shakes the Lightning Lords from their peaceful winter, and they are plunged into a desperate hunt for answers that leads them into the darkest pits of their territory’s history.
Check out the opening chapters here for free.
She pulled her long, blond hair back and tied it in a sloppy pony tail. Examining her face in the grubby mirror the Alpha observed her tanned and lined skin. Her lips were far thinner than they had been in her youth. Two teenage daughters, well, one now, and a lifetime of fighting were evident on her face. When she thought about it, maybe she was just unusual for a shifter and looked her actual age, rather than ten or more years younger.
With a snort of laughter, Jessica turned away and swept down the stairs and into the small room in the basement of the shop, where Spinner-of-Crystal was trying to calm the thrashing, frantic girl on the metal table.
‘Hold still,’ Jessica snapped. She climbed up on the table and wedged her knee against her daughter’s chest to pin her down. The girl would not stop bawling. You would have thought that being brought up around shifters she would have been prepared for the change, but Victoria had completely lost control; unlike her twin sister, Angela, who had handled the change like a pro and embraced her true nature. Victoria was just one big disappointment and always had been. But blood was blood and initiation into Megaira was mandatory for all Witches.
‘It will hurt less if you hold still,’ Spinner-of-Crystal whispered. Victoria’s eyes darted between the two women who were holding her down; gradually she relented and went limp. Jessica sneered as she pushed the needle through her daughter’s earlobe. Victoria winced and let out a whimper, but she held steady. Jessica was surprised, half impressed and half disappointed. If Victoria toughened up and came through for her she would be a credit to her; but that would leave her no one upon whom to take out her anger.
The worst was still to come, however, and Jessica carefully picked up the silver claw. It burned her fingers but she hardly noticed. Victoria’s eyes latched onto the small piece of jewellery as Jessica moved it slowly towards her ear and she began to thrash about again.
‘You will wear this with pride,’ Jessica said, her voice low and threatening. ‘You are one of us now, for better or worse and you will wear the mark of our kin and our Patron, Megaira.’
Jessica pressed the delicate silver claw against the girl’s ear while Spinner-of-Crystal held her face and shoulders still. Victoria shook violently as the silver burned her skin, and Jessica had to contend with the jerky movement. She sighed and bent lower, gripping her daughter’s ear and the claw more tightly. She pressed on, forcing the claw through the new piercing. It broke through the flesh and fresh blood spilled down her neck and into her hair. Victoria screamed and managed to wrench an arm free.
The Alpha released her grip on the girl. Spinner-of-Crystal followed her lead and Victoria leaped from the table and threw herself against the wall of the little room. She shrieked and tugged at her ear. ‘If you pull it out we will only have to put it back in again,’ Jessica drawled.
Victoria began to calm down as she got accustomed to the sensation. She pressed her back flat against the wall and took deep breaths. Jessica watched her carefully, she doubted the girl’s strength of will, but was seeing a hint of the girl’s sister in her now. She wasn’t going to hold her breath, the apparent calm could be fake or fleeting.
Jessica’s phone rang and she left the room with a backward glance and roll of her eyes. She glanced at the caller ID and stopped dead. She drew a deep breath before answering the call. ‘Your Grace.’
‘I hear congratulations are in order.’ The voice on the line was sombre.
‘Indeed, thank you, Your Grace,’ Jessica replied.
‘I hope this compensates somewhat for your loss.’
‘Thank you, it remains to be seen.’ The scorn in her voice couldn’t be hidden and her remark was met with awkward silence.
‘Well, are you nearly ready?’ the caller asked after a long pause.
‘I believe so,’ the Alpha replied with a slight tremor to her voice. An uncharacteristic lump rose in her throat and she coughed to clear it.
‘You had better be, I need you to settle this vendetta quickly so as not to interfere with my plans.’ The voice dripped with bitterness.
‘Of course, Your Grace. It will be dealt with swiftly and decisively.’
‘Good. I will know when it is done. If you succeed, the Blue Moon will finally be eradicated and their scourge ended. You will be rewarded.’
‘Thank you, Your Grace.’ Jessica allowed herself a small smile.
‘If you fail, however, you will feel the heat of my blade.’
‘Of course, Your Grace.’ The smile fell from her lips. The line went dead and Jessica slowly lowered her phone. She wouldn’t fail. She couldn’t fail.
She returned to the room to find her daughter sobbing in a heap on the floor, blood all over her face and in her hair. The silver claw lay in the middle of the floor. Jessica sighed and stooped to pick it up. ‘Put her back on the table,’ she ordered Spinner-of-Crystal. ‘Let’s start again.’
2nd February: Imbolc
Stalker watched him sleeping. His breathing was deep and rhythmic and his eyelids fluttered softly. She leaned in and kissed him gently on the lips. His dark skin was hot and his neck and chest gleamed with sweat. He stirred slightly with her kiss and she slowly pulled away and slid to the edge of the bed. She felt the cool wooden floor against her feet. Her clothes were scattered all over his bedroom and she started to stand up to reach for her underwear when his hand caught her wrist.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked, sleepily.
‘I have to get back, we have preparations to make for tonight,’ she said, looking back at him.
First Strike pulled her roughly back onto the bed and into his arms. She giggled and played at struggling to get free.
‘No, you have to stay here with me.’
‘I thought you were asleep, I didn’t want to wake you.’
‘So you were going to sneak off while I slept?’ he said, his eyes wide with pretend shock. ‘What do you think I am?’
‘Oh, don’t go there,’ she scolded. ‘You might not like what you hear.’ They both pulled faces and First Strike wrestled his way on top of her amid laughter. Stalker let him pin her to the bed and enjoyed his kisses on her neck.
He slid over to one side and propped himself up on his elbow to look at her.
‘I’m crazy about you. You know that, right?’ he asked, staring at her intently.
Stalker felt heat in her cheeks and chewed on her bottom lip. A warning voice in her head reminded her that wolves mate for life.
‘Yeah, I do,’ she whispered, stroking his arm. ‘I have to go but I’ll see you tonight. It’s only a few hours.’
‘I have to walk you out,’ he said, sitting up and searching for his jeans.
‘There’s a taxi rank twenty yards from your front door,’ she said, a little resentment creeping into her voice.
‘Crimson is really strict about this stuff. I know you have that sneaky ability to suppress your trail, but it doesn’t bear thinking about if any of my pack pick up your scent without mine right beside it.’
He was right. Stalker sighed and quickly got herself dressed.
‘Does she know? I mean, has she smelled me on you already?’
‘Maybe. Probably. But she hasn’t mentioned it. What about your pack?’ he asked as he pulled on his clothes.
‘Weaver knows, she knew that very first night,’ she said with a grin.
‘Oh god,’ he groaned. ‘I’ll have to try and look her in the eye tonight. I wonder who will crack first.’
‘It won’t be that bad, besides, it will be crazy tonight. Everyone’s coming, you might not even see her.’
They left the house and walked slowly to the taxi rank holding hands. The shut shops and still houses on either side of the street were as grey as the slate clouds above. There was the faintest threat of snow in the air, hopefully the last snow of winter. Tonight would usher in the spring and signal the New Year for their kind. A chance for fresh starts. A single taxi sat in the rank, the driver glanced up at their arrival and put his newspaper aside.
‘I’ll see you tonight, then,’ First Strike said. He leaned in for a kiss and Stalker welcomed it. His breath was hot against the cool air and she sank into his kiss. She pulled away slowly and opened the taxi door.
‘See you tonight,’ she said with a smile.
She watched him out of the window as the taxi drove away, a small smile on his full lips. Stalker sighed and pulled out her phone to check for messages. She had a missed call and voicemail, from him.
She dropped her head back against the headrest and dialled in to listen.
‘Hi, how are you? I woke up feeling weird today. Spring is coming, change is in the air, I guess. Anyway, I thought of you and wondered if you were okay. I hope you will call me back, but totally understand if you don’t. It’s been weeks now and I haven’t heard from you. I just want to know you’re okay. I worry, you know? Anyway, I hope you’re okay and hope to hear from you soon. I… Bye.’
His last, unfinished sentence clung to Stalker’s thoughts as she hung up the phone and closed her eyes. Rhys’s messages were few and far between now, but each one brought renewed regret and sadness. She knew that First Strike was a rebound. Part of her wanted it to be more, but her thoughts always came back to Rhys. Caerton sped past, half asleep in the early morning stillness. Stalker gazed unseeing at the window as a solitary snowflake landed on the glass and instantly melted.
She arrived back at 32 Grove Street and found most of the pack busy in the living room, making their costumes for the festival. Fights-Eyes-Open was with his family for what had become his usual Saturday-family-day.
‘Dirty stop out!’ Weaver-of-Sky’s-Loom called, glancing up from her sewing.
Stalker laughed it off and made her way to the kitchen to get some breakfast. She peeked out into the garden. The glowing cocoon in the corner was getting brighter and throbbing more each day. Unchained Lightning was sure to hatch out of it soon, but what was he going to have changed into? It made her nervous; it made all of them nervous.
The house was becoming increasingly more homey and comfortable. A quiet winter since the destruction of the Plague Doctor had afforded them the chance to finish getting the garden fixed up and furnish the house with more than the basics. They had reupholstered the sofa, added lamps and stocked the kitchen with china and plenty of food. It was truly home now. Stalker still kept her flat, mainly as somewhere to meet First Strike, but also so that she still had something of her old life.
Stalker spent the day finishing off her outfit, and helping the others with theirs. They played music and ate together. Weaver made no more digs about Stalker’s escapades, and her thoughts drifted away from Rhys’s message. A brief flurry of snow caused a ripple of excitement, but didn’t amount to anything.
Eyes arrived at 6.30pm looking mildly flustered and nervous.
‘Why aren’t you ready?’ Wind Talker asked him.
‘I couldn’t change into my costume at home,’ Eyes replied. ‘What on earth would Chloe think of this?’ He held up his expensive, black suit and pulled his accessories out of a bag. He had platinum cufflinks and a tie pin emblazoned with glimmering lightning bolts. The finishing touches were silver spray in his hair and sunglasses with little blue lights all around the rims.
Soon, they were ready to set off, dressed in all their finery. Wind Talker had made himself a grey cloak with a huge, silver dragon printed on the back which bore an uncanny resemblance to Unchained Lightning. Weaver had threaded tiny, flashing blue and white LEDs into her hair and wore a black skinny t-shirt with a flashing lightning bolt and the words “Power, bitch” on the front . Claws-of-Lead was dressed in casual jeans and t-shirt, but had fitted white lights into the heels of his boots and wore dozens of glow sticks around his arms and neck.
Stalker had on huge black boots with silver lightning down the sides and flashing lights in the soles. She wore a long skirt with splits up the sides and a silver vest with glowing blue studs forming a power symbol. Her hair was growing out now and was just brushing her shoulders. She had dyed it bright blue and also threaded it with LEDs, like Weaver. She had her two dha strapped to her back and had added blue tassels to the hilts with little steel lightning bolts hanging off them. Like Claws, she also had glow sticks all up her arms and around her neck.
The Lightning Lords left 32 Grove Street and climbed into Eyes’ shiny new four-wheel drive. He had opted for something a bit more robust and practical when the insurance cheque for his luxury saloon had turned up.
The sun had set over the city, and orange street lights cast their eerie glow over everything. The morning’s dark clouds had cleared and the clear sky was pricked with stars. A waning gibbous moon shone over Caerton as the Lightning Lords sped through the bustling streets of St. Mark’s, into the almost deserted business district of Burnside and then out into Fenstoke.
It was a bizarre mix of old and new; bits of Fenstoke had their origins in an outlying village that had been absorbed into the city as it grew, while others were new developments. A college that had been built twenty years ago had a sprawling campus and there was a huge leisure development with the city’s biggest mall, as well as a multiplex cinema and over a dozen restaurants. They drove further out, almost to the city limits. Fenwick, the territory of the Witches, lay to the north, just out of sight beyond big, detached houses.
Stalker directed Eyes to the venue, Fenstoke Lodge, an eighteenth century mansion built of sandstone. It stood within vast grounds, high on a hill, overlooking the whole of Caerton. This was the seat of power of The Hand of God, First Strike’s pack. His house was back towards the city centre. Stalker had never been invited here with him; but had come two days previously for the final planning meeting with Odin’s Warriors. Tonight the mansion was floodlit and stood out against the black forest behind it.
Eyes pulled up in front of the house, at the end of a row of parked cars. Another car arrived right after them and parked alongside. Stalker glanced at it, it was an old hatchback that had been tinkered with and added to. It had blacked-out windows, a custom paint job and big spoiler on the back.
‘Everyone ready?’ Eyes asked. Apprehensive nods rippled around the car.
Next to them, five young men were piling out of the other car. They were all dressed in tracksuits, one was wearing a backwards cap. Several of them sneered at the Lightning Lords as they slowly stepped out of Eyes’ car, all done up to the nines.
Eyes held the pack back to let the others go ahead, which suited Stalker just fine.
‘Who were they?’ Weaver whispered once they were out of earshot.
‘At a guess,’ Stalker replied, ‘The Factory Boys, from Shalebrook.’
‘You’ve seen the whole guest list, haven’t you?’ Wind Talker asked as they made their way past the sweeping steps up to the entrance of the house and around the side.
‘I have,’ she replied with a wink.
Very large, very well-dressed men were positioned every few yards, indicating the path into the grounds that they were to follow, hired human bodyguards, there to keep humans away from the site. The Lightning Lords were led to the mouth of a cave, set in the side of the hill behind the house. Torches burned inside the cave, not just normal, yellow flames, but flames of red, green, blue and purple lit the way deep into the hill.
Eyes led the Lightning Lords quickly through the tunnel, which was wide enough for them to walk two abreast. Stalker felt the moment when they crossed the veil in between worlds, straight through with no choice in the matter. Her navel was wrenched and the world spun quickly around in a dizzying blur. She was used to the sensation and her feet landed solidly on the crystal floor.
In Hepethia, the hidden realm of shifter kind, the tunnel opened up into a vast cavern lit with more of the brightly coloured torches and a million sparkling fairy lights wrapped around the many crystalline stalactites that clung to the ceiling. All of Hepethia was made of these incredible crystal structures and the cavern shone in a rainbow of colours.
The cave was filled with shifters, approximately sixty altogether. They were assembled roughly by pack, each adorned with costumes representing their uniqueness, though there was some intermingling going on already.
There was a collective intake of breath at the sight and Stalker grinned at her pack mates, pride swelling in her chest.
‘Greetings,’ a deep voice said from just beside them. Stalker knew it at once and turned to give First Strike a warm smile. ‘Welcome to the Danegeld.’
I hope you enjoyed this taster. Buy your copy today on any of these retailers.
I wanted to share this little snippet that didn’t make the final cut of Tides of Spring. It features a particularly horrifying demon that I was reluctant to do away with, but the scene added nothing to the story or characters, so it had to go. I hope you enjoy it.
Stalker and Wind Talker circled around to the back of the complex and found a single storey office building set into the wall. It had several small windows high up and Stalker jumped up to grasp the ledge of one of them with her fingers. She pulled herself up awkwardly and peered inside. The room was dark and still. She dropped back down with a slight crunch to the gravel and looked at Wind Talker. It would be simpler on her own, she could just shift into a flying animal and go over the wall. But she had to get Wind Talker in too.
‘Give me a boost up, I’ll get the window open and we can get in that way, it looks safe.’
Wind Talker agreed and Stalker placed her foot in his cupped hands. She grabbed hold of the window ledge and managed to gently prise open the window and slide it up. She deftly pulled herself up and through the window, her feet landing silently on the floor inside. She turned and reached her hand down for Wind Talker. He grasped it and scrambled his feet up the wall. His entrance was somewhat less graceful, but still virtually silent.
Stalker led him out of the office they had landed in and out into the hallway. It smelled strongly of fresh paint and the whole block seemed to be newly refurbished. Somewhere in the distance she heard an electric saw start up. They crept towards the door out of the block, which would lead out into the courtyard where the power equipment was located.
As she walked slowly along the hall she felt something wet drip onto her shoulder. Her hand darted to the wet spot, she expected to find wet paint but instead thick, red gloop came away on her hand. Her eyes darted to the ceiling above and there she saw, looking down at her with its head cocked to one side, a disgusting demon clinging to the ceiling. It was roughly humanoid, but it was flayed and instead of hands and feet, it had bits of machinery roughly sewn onto stumps of limbs. ‘Out, now!’ she yelled to Wind Talker and they backed up along the hallway.
The demon dropped to the floor and scuttled after them on all fours, snapping its pointed metal teeth. It launched itself at Stalker and an electric saw for its right hand fired to life. It managed to slice into her arm and she screamed in pain.
Wind Talker bounded out from behind her, in his Agrius form, half man, half bear and terrifying. He snarled and attacked the demon, driving his claws into its chest. The creature shoved him back and twisted away from him, climbing back up the wall out of his reach and hissed at him, spitting blood and pus down on both of them.
Stalker drew one of her swords and leaped up to stab it, catching its leg before it darted out of reach. She turned and ran for the nearest office, Wind Talker hot on her heels. Once they were both inside, Stalker slammed the door shut and glanced around the room. There was nothing in it except plastic sheeting on the floor.
The door started to vibrate and the whirring saw began to slice through it. Stalker leaped away from the door and ran for the window, she dove straight through it, shattering the glass and flew through the air, with splinters of glass flying around her. She fell a few feet and then floated gracefully to the floor, with the aid of her special talisman and landed with a slight crunch on the broken glass.
Wind Talker came flying out after her and landed with a heavy thud just behind her. Stalker looked up at the window and saw the demon leaning out of it, snapping its teeth and hissing at them.
The rest of the pack came running around the corner to find them, their faces filled with panic.
‘So much for a stealthy recon mission,’ Stalker said, brushing broken glass from her clothes. She had small cuts all over her hands and arms from jumping through the window but they were already healing. Wind Talker shifted back into his human form and glanced up at the window. The demon showed no signs of following them.
If you were intrigued by this morsel, then be sure to pick up the finished version on 17th October on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks and Smashwords.
If you’re new to the series, then get your free copy of the first book here.
Connect with me on social media via these links:
In anticipation of the release of Tides of Spring in a few weeks, I wanted to give readers a better look at one of my favourite characters of the series. I wish I had more time in the books to really dig into the supporting characters, as some of them are very special to me. But there is so much plot to pack in that there isn’t always the space to develop them as much as I would like to. So, here is an insight into this ethereal, bookish young woman.
If you come up with any burning questions not covered here, do please leave a comment and I will be happy to share more! (But no spoilers!)
Name known by: Last-Breath-Echoes
Other names: Maisie Munroe
Actual age: 23
Apparent age: 20
Occupation: Anatomical Pathology Technologist. She works in the hospital morgue.
Notable physical features: Very slim, long black hair, light blue eyes.
Physical quirks: Marks door frames with her nails as she crosses thresholds. A subconscious nervous habit sneaking out of an otherwise imperturbable demeanour.
Family: Her father is enigmatic exiled shifter, Father Ash. He may or may not belong to The Spiral Hand, a dangerous chaos cult. Her mother died when Echoes was an infant. She was a shifter and was killed in a fight. She had a brother, his childhood name was Michael, but she never knew him by it. He was twenty years older than her and had changed before she was born. His shifter name was Slips-Through-Starlight, however he became a member of The Spiral Hand and it changed to Spirals-of-Bright-Agony. Father Ash executed him shortly before he was exiled.
Relationships: Her pack is The Hand of God. Their territory is in the east of Caerton, south of Fenwick, the territory of The Witches, a deadly foe to all of Caerton’s shifters. She is close to her Alpha, Crimson. Her closest friend, however, lies outside her pack. Scribe-of-the-Fallen is a fellow Scroll Keeper, the only other of that ilk in the city. They share a similar outlook on life, as well as spiritual beliefs. They perform rituals together as well as conducting research and keeping records. He is like a brother to her and is the only person who can make her laugh.
Where does she live?: Echoes lives in Fenstoke Lodge, a huge mansion in the heart of her pack’s territory. She grew up in the house when her father was Alpha of The Hand of God. All of her pack mates have rooms there, though some of them also have other homes.
What is her sleeping space like?: She has her own room in Fenstoke Lodge. It is painted dark purple and her four poster bed is dressed with black and white drapes. Small lamps covered in coloured scarves stand on nearly every surface. Piles of books are stacked roughly on a round table at the end of her bed, too frequently read to bother returning them to the shelves.
Greatest flaw: She doesn’t really understand people’s humanity and emotions, and they make her uncomfortable.
Biggest secret: She writes letters to her deceased mother and keeps them in a box under her bed.
What music does she sing to?: She doesn’t sing, but may be heard humming from time to time. She has little time for human music, but has fluent knowledge of shifter ballads, otherwise known as “the songs of the bards”.
Favourite person (living or dead): Scribe-of-the-Fallen.
Proudest achievement: Becoming a Scroll Keeper. Her training was overseen by Flames-First-Guardian. He was like a proud father when she completed the initiation rituals. She felt a great sense of relief to complete her training and sense of home-coming.
Most embarrassing moment: As an awkward pre-teen she tripped on the school library steps in front of dozens of people. Books went flying, as did she. She split her lip and nobody came to her aid.
Deepest regret: Not seeing her brother or father before the events surrounding their final encounter.
Biggest fear: Her father returning to the city.
Obsession: Unravelling mysteries. Once she gets her teeth into something she is relentless until she gets to the bottom of the issue.
Most treasured item: A platinum ring with jade inset, it is a special talisman that allows her to heal people.
Whom does she most want to please?: Her Alpha, Crimson, who is the closest thing to family she has.
What makes her angry?: People messing with magic they don’t understand.
What makes her calm?: Books.
Describe a recurring dream: Echoes stands alone on a beach at dawn. A soft, gibbous moon lingers on the horizon as the sun rises behind the cliffs. Father Ash approaches out of the sea but disappears before reaching her.
If she knew she had one month to live, what would she do?: Make a talisman that grants wishes and give it Scribe. Visit each member of her pack to have some special time with them. Go to her father to reconcile with him.
What is she hiding from herself?: A deep love for her father and desire to reconnect with him.
That’s all for now, folks. I love to hear from you. Please feed the author and leave your comments and questions for Last-Breath-Echoes (known as LBE in my notes) below!
If you need to catch up on the series so far, than click here for your free copy of the first book, Seeds of Autumn.
Connect with me on social media via these links:
The Lightning Lords walked quickly through the tunnel, which was wide enough for them to walk two abreast. Stalker felt the moment when they crossed the veil in between worlds, straight through with no choice in the matter. In Hepethia, the hidden realm of shifter kind, the tunnel opened up suddenly into a vast cavern lit with more of the brightly coloured torches and a million sparkling fairy lights wrapped around the many crystalline stalactites that clung to the ceiling. All of Hepethia was made of these incredible crystal structures and this cavern shone in a rainbow of colours.
The cave was filled with shifters, approximately sixty altogether. They were assembled roughly by pack, each adorned with costumes representing their uniqueness, though there was some intermingling going on already.
There was a collective intake of breath at the sight and Stalker grinned at her pack mates, pride swelling in her chest.
‘Greetings,’ a deep voice said from just beside them. Stalker knew it at once and turned to give First Strike a warm smile. He was topless, but was wearing a heavy, ornate gold cross around his neck on a thick chain. ‘Welcome to the Danegeld.’
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.