A Time of Ashes
Fate and the Wheel (#1)
by Ru Pringle
Published: June 22, 2018
CW: Abuse (prisoner, emotional, sexual), Animal cruelty, Hate crime, Body horror, Gore, Bullying, Degenerative Illness, Genocide, Violence (brief graphic), Racial bigotry/Racism, Torture
POSSIBLE ULTIMATE TOUR EXPERIENCE TICKETS: An Unforgettable Sidekick, Under The Sea, It’s All About The Journey, That Ship Has Sailed, The More The Merrier, A Villain You Love To Hate, A Gate To Another World
A quest through a thousand worlds. An aeons-old foe. Not even the gods can help. It’s killing them, too.
IN THE YEARS BEFORE THE CORRUPTION CAME, Murrin Kentle lived in a world where the largest island could be walked across in a day, and humans traded and fished in bladeships made from the bones of the gigantic and bizarre sea monsters patrolling its stormy, bottomless oceans. As a truthkeep of the Brotherhood of the First Mind, it’s been his duty to fight the decay of knowledge with religious fervour. A fervour he has increasingly struggled to maintain.
Before the Corruption came, Sheehan hahe Seeheeli was a carefree countess of the Shi’iin. Amphibious and fiercely matriarchal, her people have maintained an uneasy coexistence with the human scholars dominating the islands. Then an emissary of the gods brings news of an impending catastrophe. Now, she and Murrin must embark on a desperate voyage in the hope of salvation, although both the subject of their search and the path they must take remain stubbornly obscure.
Before the Corruption came, a wild young man named Coll grew up in a desert town, consumed by rage over what was done to his mother. His thirst for retribution will set in motion a train of events not even the gods could fully have foretold.
NOW THE CORRUPTION IS HERE, and nothing in Murrin’s world, nor any of the worlds of the Sundered Realm, will ever be the same.
HEFTING THE MAN up in his arms, Coll bore him with difficulty to the top of the ridge, leading the gennel on behind. He half-ran down the other side, and by the time they reached the foot of the crystal tree he was out of breath.
The structure seemed even bigger from here, looming against the stars. Coll laid Soren against its side, resting his head carefully in the nook where the lowest two branches parted. He gingerly touched its surface. He had heard that metal did strange things in the vicinity of crystal trees.
He put his ear against it.
It seemed to be emitting a faint oscillation: a pulse so deep it was felt in his body as much as heard.
And it was wet.
Coll licked it greedily. It was shockingly cold, and there was enough moisture on its glass-like surface to dilute the secretions which had dried like leather over his tongue. During the day, he had worn a linen scarf round his head, slit with a knife to let him see while protecting his eyes from the glare. He pulled it from round his neck and wiped it over the monolith. Soon it was damp enough to squeeze water from. He held it over Soren’s mouth, which opened, tongue lolling.
‘I’ll never understand how you learned fighting like that.’
‘Amazing what years of hatred can achieve.’
Coll bent to examine the animal’s corpse. He had not seen a creature quite like it before. A carnivore, it had four lithe legs covered with short greyish fur, a shaggy darker mane round its shoulders and along its back, and a long snout full of neat holding and slicing teeth. A flat, pale tongue had lolled between them on to the sand. Also in the sand were most of the creature’s guts. Its belly gave the appearance of having been opened with some kind of four-bladed shredder.
The guts felt and smelled wet and fresh. He looked about apprehensively.
‘I haven’t thanked you yet.’
Soren coughed – or maybe it was a laugh. ‘Your gratitude,’ he croaked, ‘seems premature.’
‘Regardless. I doubt that I deserved your help.’
‘Thirteen years late.’ Swallowing painfully, Soren raised his head, eyes gleaming in the moonlight. ‘You were right about that, Coll. Isn’t a day that’s passed … when it hasn’t eaten at me. She was my sister. And yet I did nothing.’
Coll looked away, up at the arc of stars. ‘What about your wife?’ The words sounded more contemptuous than intended. Soren wheezed. Coughed again.
‘They can keep her. Good riddance.’ He grunted. ‘She’ll survive. She has a way … of doing that.’
Coll poked the sand with his toes.
‘Leave me here,’ Soren told him.
‘Shut up, old man. Save your strength.’
Soren grasped Coll’s arm weakly. He was shaking. ‘I only slow you. I’ll not see another sunset. We both know that.’
For a moment there was only the subliminal hum of the crystal tree, and the noisy breathing of the gennel, which had wisely taken the opportunity to fall asleep.
Coll stood. Sighed. He drew his knife from its sheath on his belt, and dragged the strange animal closer by its limp hind leg. It was quite a bit heavier than it had looked. ‘I am tired of running,’ he said, dropping to a crouch beside Soren. ‘Whatever our fate, Uncle, here is where it will be decided.’
‘Eighteen summers. Already such a fatalist. When I was your age …’ Soren was seized by a coughing fit. Recovering, he shook his head. ‘I swear … all I could think about was grog and fornication.’ Coll saw teeth glinting. ‘And the breasts of a woman – married, mind you – called … Tanith Biddens.’
‘Another difference, then, between you and me.’
‘Ah, Coll … but you never saw them. High point of my life. Seriously.’ More coughing. ‘She was so much better than me … in every way. And yet, somehow, I got to hold those incredible breasts … in my blacksmith’s hands. I wonder if I’ll think of them … when Dar Felisti comes?’
Dar Felisti. The god charged with escorting the dead across the Endless Desert to the Gardens of Fellas. Or some such shit. Coll slid his knife along the creature’s spine and, with three quick rips, yanked off its skin.
Then he placed the skin over his uncle’s torso and began to fillet its previous owner.
THEIR HUNTERS CAME just after sunrise.
Coll suspected they had known his and Soren’s location for most of the night. They had just waited until daylight to be sure there could be no surprises.
The troupe must have been thirty strong. Each sat astride a gennel, the leading animals ridden – if Coll had their crests and colours right – by Hels, Lord Froeslen’s only male heir, and the brothers and sons of most of the other nobles Coll had slaughtered, what seemed now a lifetime ago.
Even in the heat, they wore steel chainmail or light plate armour beneath their travel cloaks. The flanks of their gennels were protected by skirts of armoured hides or flexibly linked, scale-like plates of beaten steel. Clearly hand-picked from the House Guard and lower ranks of the affronted families, their followers wore a variety of more tarnished armour and travel-stained cloaks and tunics. All wore headscarves or wide-brimmed leather hats to keep off the sun. A pair of slavering dings strained silently on long leashes.
The small army fanned out on the crest of the dune overlooking the crystal tree’s hollow.
In the shadow at the base of the tree, they saw two figures lying side by side, huddled beneath the blacksmith’s greatcloak. Wearing Coll’s bloodstained tunic, and with a russet scarf wrapped, nomad-style, round its head and face, only one showed signs of life. Heavy boots and a what looked like matted hair protruded from the cloak’s wider part. Blood darkened the sand. Tied to one of the tree’s branches, whinnying nervously, the gennel the pair had been riding pulled lethargically at its tether.
Hels took off first his broad-brimmed hat, and then his father’s splendidly polished helmet. He had looked most foolish, Coll thought, wearing both at once.
‘Blacksmith’s apprentice!’ Hels called down at the forlorn spectacle. His strident voice was tight with fury. ‘You fought well, I’ll grant you that. And you have given us a good chase. Four of our riders have returned home in shame. The same goes to you, blacksmith Soren. Treacherous though you are.
‘But it is over now! Now is the time to yield. Do you yield?’
The figure in the bloody tunic stirred slightly.
‘What are your terms?’ croaked a voice from the hollow.
‘“Terms”, you say?’ Hels turned his head fractionally and barked out a cold laugh. His mount fidgeted, snorting. ‘Has your cowardly friend lost his tongue, blacksmith? How are you enjoying the arrow we put in you? You must be near death, I should imagine. The truth is, I already mistook you for a corpse.’
Eyes wide and staring, Hels leaned forward, elbows splayed, hands braced on his thighs.
‘Well now, our “terms” may not be so enticing. That traitorous lowlife you rescued, who squirms beside you like a worm, has murdered an entire generation of lords and duchens. He shall suffer mightily for it. As shall you – and so shall your family, to the furthest removed child. In fact, such shall be the extent and duration of the suffering we will inflict upon you and your kin that new machines will have to be built to inflict it. Our only terms are these: that should you fail to resist when we take you, the retribution exacted upon you and your families will be marginally less bloody and merciless. So I say to you both now, I beg you. Please – resist us!’
‘As you wish.’
Speaking almost in Hels’ ear, Coll slipped an arm around the man’s neck, pressing the tip of his knife into his windpipe. ‘I cared little for your terms anyway.’
COLL’S VOICE was level, but his blood and his thoughts were racing. Arcing around behind his pursuers had taken a good chunk of the night, and keeping himself hidden downwind as he trailed them through loose sand from their nearby camp had been nerve-racking work. As he had hoped, the prospect of vengeance upon reaching his and Soren’s desperate little camp had blinded them. Forming a line slightly downhill from the dune’s skyline, they had been sufficiently distracted for him to scurry from the shelter of the dune crest unnoticed, right up on to the back of Hels’ gennel.
But now the gennel was restless, its broad back unexpectedly slippery. He was struggling to keep his balance. Around him, the line of other gennels became a circle. Metal rang in the morning air as swords were drawn and spear-tips were lowered towards him and the inheritor of the people and lands of Grel.
Coll had, he now understood, manoeuvred both himself and anyone even faintly related to him into a terrible position. Because of him, two dozen were already dead, among them townspeople who had done little to harm him save defend those they had seen as protectors. Because of him, the man who was the closest thing he ever had to a father or a friend lay dying – and now the families of those he had killed were bent on exactly the kind of reckless vendetta which had consumed his own worthless life. Except that they were in a far better position to carry it out.
He had no real wish to kill these men. And now the time was upon him, he found that he had no wish to die either, at their hands or any others’. Yet now he knew that if even one of his pursuers returned to the town alive, the reprisals inflicted upon still more innocent people – again, entirely because of him – would be terrible.
‘For what it’s worth,’ he called out, so everyone could hear, ‘I am sorry for what you have lost. I have no quarrel with any of you, though I understand why you would have quarrel with me. So tell me truthfully, and be done with it! Is there no way we may all walk out of this?’
Even as the words left his mouth, Coll knew that, whatever any of these men said, he would be a fool to trust them after what he had done. Despite the knife drawing a red line across his throat, Lord Froeslen’s son forced his head round against Coll’s grip, his eyes incandescent with hate, and spat:
And then Coll was somehow falling. Then he was sprawled on his back in the sand with the wind knocked out of him, watching the spade-nailed front footpads of the gennel rising over him as it blotted out the sky. ‘Kill him!’ A voice was screaming, over and over. ‘Kill him!’
Something crashed into his side. A cheer went up, and he saw, with curious detachment, that sticking out of him just above his lowest rib was the long, wooden shaft of a spear.
And then, suddenly, everything became very simple.
Make your death costly.
IT WAS THE SOLE THOUGHT of which he was conscious for a while, there on the dunes, fighting out of sheer animal reflex, because it was something to do rather than give up and allow himself to be hacked and stabbed to pieces.
He remembered his arm going down. His sword coming out, shivering the shaft off the spear in a burst of splinters. A burst of pain. Then the sword going up, into the guts of the gennel rearing over him. A sidestep as the gennel crashed down. Hels’ blade fielded with the flat of his knife, the knife jarring from his hand. All around, screaming faces and eerie silence. Brightness. Clashing metal. His sword slashing. Hels’ surprised-looking face, split into mismatched portions by an oozing red line, the man’s body crashing to the sand. His free hand catching Hels’ heavy one-handed sword as it fell, scything it towards an arm, a blade, a face, a leg, whilst his own, slimmer sword hacked and swung and jabbed and sang – all the while his lungs expelling, his voice strangely silent. Bodies tumbling, but more of them closing, crowding. Jabbing, pushing and lunging. Forcing him to the ground.
Then that strange sound. A sort of sighing, whirring. Faint at first, then pervasive, and all around.
Then roaring, screeching, and great fanged mouths tearing holes in the crowding ranks. Gargling screams. The rending of chainmail and flesh. A confusion of sand-coloured fur and orange manes, of wheels (wheels!) scattering cockerel-tails of orange sand. Arms and legs flying, in arcs against the blue morning sky, blood spraying.
He heard his own screaming then, as a blur with fanged jaws bigger than his head came at him. He stabbed at it. Some instinct told him to guard his rear, and he slumped to the ground, whipping his sword behind him as he fell, feeling it connect. There was a tearing yelp of something else’s pain, and a great body crashed over him.
The owner of the oncoming jaws bunched its six muscular legs, pulling its whirring wheels into the air as it leapt over its tumbling kin, showing Coll a brief muscular silhouette against the sky.
All around were the shrieks of men and the whinnying of terrified gennels.
He ran, down into the hollow. Another of the things came at him, carving down the side of the dune with a speed he couldn’t believe. It lifted a wheel, quadruple opposable talons reaching …
And he rolled, crying out again, whipping his sword back and down. Another yelp: the creature skidded and rolled, its severed wheel bouncing away like a toy ball. It tumbled heavily into the crystal tree, making it creak, scattering three of its kind which had already begun feasting there.
With a roar, he descended on the injured creature, severing the front of its face clean off with his first swipe, plunging his swords with alternate strokes again and again through its thick hide. It gave out a great keening cry. Coll hauled himself to his feet on top of its stiffening body, raised his swords and screamed at the dunes. All across the top of them, predatory shapes tore to and fro, slamming into the few remaining riders he could see, roaring and emitting oddly musical little yelps.
He yelled again. ‘Come on, you ding-shits! I am here! See me!’
He tried not to look at whatever was left of Soren and his gennel.
The motion of the creatures slowed. With eerily choreographed purpose they swept down off the dune, coalescing like a fluid into a regularly spaced pack. As the pack neared, it extended into a line which curled around the crystal tree, enclosing him in a tightening ring of speeding muscle and dust.
He could feel the spear’s head howling in his side, making his breath catch and his gorge rise. He was struggling to raise his left arm. He could not let them know that.
‘Come here, pussycats, and I will shorten your lives for you!’
They were brutally lovely creatures. More so as they moved close enough for him to smell their sun-soaked fur. Their startling eyes pierced him from all directions: pools of fierce gold and obsidian, glinting in the sun. As they screeched at him, whiskers bristling, broad muzzles displayed bone-white shearing fangs in gapes wider than his torso. Flame-coloured manes encircled the creatures’ necks, dwindling between flanks patterned with faint stripes or broken rings towards insect-swatting tufts at the end of long, sinuous tails.
Their wheels turned on scaly swellings at the ends of well-muscled legs. Ranging from creamy in colour to almost black, they were covered with thick scales which seemed to move independently, biting the sand as they rotated. Four long, opposable claws extending from each hub moved restlessly against each other, making snicking noises audible above the rumble of their passage.
Set just forward of the middle pair of limbs, the front pair were shorter and slighter. Their wheels were different too, as he saw when several of the creatures broke from the circling pack, extending them threateningly towards him as they advanced. Scales like shards of steel aligned themselves into parallel ridges, spinning at head-height like blades on a rotating saw.
Snarling, the nearest creature lunged at him. Coll screamed back, waving his swords. The beast inched away, still snarling and screeching.
Good, thought Coll. You know I am not an easy kill.
He was acutely conscious that his quiver and bow were still on his belt. Whether his bow or any arrows remained intact, he had no intention of lowering his gaze or a sword to find out. He suspected it made little difference. Even if his arm was up to it, by the time he managed to nock an arrow, he would be inside one of the creatures’ jaws.
‘I am staying here,’ he told them. ‘Go! There is enough dead flesh for you to eat.’ He gestured around with a sword. ‘It will be easier for you to leave me alone, I promise you that! Yah!’
He lunged forward. The creatures moved back.
‘So, you fear me. That is good.’
And with that he sat purposefully on the back of the beast he had killed, propped his back against the crystal tree, crossed his arms over his chest and stared them down. The spike of metal inside him pushed against the hard surface of the crystal tree where it protruded from his back.
Blood trickled down his hip inside Soren’s borrowed clothes.
THEY STAYED THAT WAY for the rest of the morning and into the heat of the afternoon: the young man sitting, arms folded, staring as the creatures circled and parts of the pack drifted off to feast on their kills, perhaps before yet more fearsome things appeared from the desert to claim the carrion for themselves.
The sun wheeled overhead, moving the crystal tree’s shadow like a sundial. Coll felt himself fading. As the shadow lengthened he doubted, if the creatures charged him, that he would be able to raise a hand, let alone defend himself. As if sensing his weakness, they were prowling closer. He found himself debating whether it would be better to cut one of his arteries while he still could, and just give the beasts the meal they wanted.
Something within him, however, would not allow it. He would, he decided, play this game out until its end.
Towards evening, as his head was starting to loll, he felt the stirring of a breeze. There was a curious feeling in the air, like something tightly wound about to snap. Sensitised to it by his inert state, his skin tingled.
Already the stench of death by the crystal tree was overpowering. Flies had manifested around the bodies in buzzing swarms, while gangs of the big, bird-like rafen, with their bristle-backs, leathery wings and beaks of shredding teeth, were dropping from the sky in swooping circles. He had already been forced to swat away several that were paying too much attention to his wound and his sun-blistered feet. Man-sized bats and other airborne scavengers had been gathering on the afternoon thermals – but now, he saw, the whirling flock was beginning to disperse towards the west.
Coll knew this feeling. He almost laughed.
The animals evidently knew it too. They slunk away, screeching sullenly at him over their shoulders as they went. They were not abandoning him, he knew. They had more sense than that. They would just bed down somewhere in the sand, closing leathery eyelids and nostrils as they waited for the storm to pass, returning to feast on him during the night.
As quickly as they had arrived, the flies and the rafen were gone. And then, its only warning a brief rising whistle and an eerie hissing sound, the storm hit.
One moment, the sky was cloudlessly blue. The next it was a choking maelstrom of abrasive sand. Coll closed his eyes, hunching his face into Soren’s flapping, filthy tunic, too weak now even to think of looking for his cloak.
Really should get down from here, he thought. Find shelter.
He could crawl inside the dead wheeled creature. He’d heard tales of traders surviving such storms in the open for days by killing their gennels or other mounts and climbing inside.
Soren had probably told him that.
Already he could feel his skin rubbed raw, his throat closing against the suffocating dust.
He must have fallen from the corpse at some point. He was on his back, the crystal tree looming over him in the weird semi-dark. The crystal tree was shining strangely. It seemed to grow ever brighter.
And then …
A huge shape, looming. A sharp tusk half-silhouetted against the lurid, hungry sky. Eyes looking down on him. Legs … too many legs. Strangely jointless … arms? Rising. Lifting him, weightlessly. So gentle … Fins. Fins of bone. A whirring noise, deeper than the high, slithering scream of the storm. The pain was fading.
‘Got me in the end,’ a voice mumbled into the storm. He was unsure whether the voice was his, or who he might have been addressing. He found that he wasn’t sad. He was tired of the world, and its unnecessary cruelties. Of the way only the cruellest seemed to prevail.
Ru Pringle began his writing career at the age of 18, paying university bills by writing features for outdoor and climbing magazines. After a stint as an environmental scientist, he became a full-time writer, gradually veering towards travel journalism. He has also worked as a tree- and vineyard-planter, footpath builder, roofer, joiner, plumber, yacht crewperson, youth hostel warden, mountain and trail guide, oil-painting salesman, cook, sound engineer, and didgeridoo and mandolin tutor.
His first two books were published in the summer of 2018: A Time of Ashes and Hunting Gods, the first parts of the fantasy / SF epic Fate and the Wheel. A dark near-future thriller, October Song, followed in October 2018, then the irreverent music-themed SF comedy Surfers and two-part epic space opera The Seed in 2020. He is now in the final stages of editing a fast-paced science fiction thriller. He lives in the southwest Highlands of Scotland.