Power Rankings – The Top 10 Most Powerful Fantasy Characters Ever

Hey…

I know…

Let’s count down the top 10 fantasy characters of all time.

Each of the following fantastical characters appears in a popular fantasy book, movie, or video game.

Some are modern. Others are old school. I’ll rank each from 1-10 in terms of their power.

A few rules:

  • Each character is a headliner – central to the book, movie, or game in which they appear. In other words, no background characters. Sidekicks are up for consideration (as long as they’re well-described.)
  • No one too obscure, meaning we’re not gonna pull up some random side-god from Final Fantasy 700
  • Humanoids only. No dragons, Cthulu-esque monsters, or Moby Dicks. Two legs and two arms are required (even if illusory) to play this game
  • Lastly, I didn’t include characters appearing primarily in comic books or cartoons…because…well…I simply don’t know enough about ’em. Also, since comic book characters are typically made to be over-powered, it feels like cheating. We’ll avoid them…with one exception.

Feel free to argue the results in the comments section.

Let’s get started…


Top 10 Most Powerful Fantasy Characters

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# 10 

Raistlin Majere (Dragonlance)

Raistlin Majere by AkiraNao

Coming in at number ten, we have the proud and dangerous wizard from the Dragonlance novel series. Raistlin starts out as a good guy (mostly) but after his test at the Tower of High Sorcery, he becomes something else. With his eyes, he sees the effect of time on all things (powerful indeed.) Ultimately, his powers grow such that he’s able to do battle with the gods themselves.

Not bad for a woodcutter’s son.

Also considered for this spot – Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)

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# 9 

Randall Flagg (Various Stephen King novels)

Randall Flagg by Michael Whelan

*He’s understated. He looks like your average Joe (sometimes.) And he wears many, many faces – Marten Broadcloak & Walter o’Dim, to name a few. As a demon, a sorcerer, and an infamous man of malice, the seemingly unstoppable R.F. moves throughout time and dimensions with bad, bad things on his mind.

Did he kill Pres. Kennedy? Will he eventually kill everyone? Who knows?

I wonder who’d win in a fight between R.F. and Raistlin Majere. Hmmmm…

Also considered for this spot – Moiraine Damodred (Wheel of Time series) and/or Yennefer of Vengerberg (The Witcher video game/novel series)

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# 8 

Doom Guy (Doom video game series)

But…he’s just a guy, right?

Wrong.

He’s a demon-slaughtering, Hell-smashing demi-god resurrected for the sole purpose of saving humanity from incineration. In the latest Doom iteration, we learn Doom Guy hails from an ancient order of Martian soldiers responsible for one task and one task alone:

Kill. Demons.

If you’re surprised he’s earned 8th place, don’t be. I’m not sure there’s a wizard alive whose magic could stop a BFG to the face.

Or a chainsaw wielded by Doom Guy with a Berserk power-up.

🙂

Also considered for this spot – Kratos (God of War) and Darth Vader (Star Wars)

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# 7

The Night’s King (Game of Thrones (novels and TV series)

He’s the ultimate necromancer.

He raises armies of wights with a flick of his fingers.

He slays dragons. He walks through fire. He turns babies into White Walkers. He orchestrates the invasion of all Seven Kingdoms.

Do NOT F with the Night King.

Also considered for this spot – Jadis the White Witch (Chronicles of Narnia) and/or Emperor Palpatine (Star Wars)

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# 6

Ganondorf (The Legend of Zelda)

Perhaps most compelling about good old Ganon is that he keeps coming back.

No matter how many times Link rises up to banish or destroy him, the ‘Dorf finds his way into Hyrule. And by virtue of claiming the Triforce, he has far more power than many of his contemporaries.

He’s sometimes a great beast. He’s often a powerful wizard. Even now and then, he’s a living, breathing cataclysmic presence in the sky.

And he edges out the Night’s King due to having already conquered his kingdom of choice…several times.

Even though he always seems to lose it in the end.

Also considered for this spot – Dracula (Bram Stoker’s novel)

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# 5

Gandalf the White (Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit)

He once slapped a Balrog of Morgoth off a mountain.

He defeated his own boss and plotted the downfall of Middle Earth’s primary nemesis, Sauron.

And he smokes a mean pipe.

Often cantankerous, sometimes downright mean, Gandalf might seem human, and yet he’s anything but. His powers are largely un-catalogued, but so obviously formidable. Sometimes, true power isn’t just lobbing fireballs and blasting lightning bolts. It’s all in the intellect, of which Gandalf has more than most.

Also considered for this spot – Albus Dumbledore and/or Voldemort (Harry Potter series)

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# 4

Pennywise  (Various Stephen King novels, also the movie, It)

Now we’re getting somewhere.

You might think of Pennywise as just a serial-killing clown. But It’s much, much more. As a Lovecraftian horror from beyond all normal dimensions, It’s come to Earth to consume as much humanity as It can.

It thrives on fear. It can shape-change. It can move about almost at will. By virtue of Its eternal nature and Its bizarre, otherworldly powers, It beats out earthbound characters. It’s possible some of the others might defeat It in one-on-one combat, but It’d probably just self-resurrect in the Macroverse and find some other food source to fill IT’s belly.

Yum.

Also considered for this spot – Lord Haliax of the Chandrian (The Kingkiller Chronicle)

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# 3 & 2

Superman & Wonder Woman (Movie versions)

 

Yeah. I know what I said. Comic book characters are generally only special because of their bloated superpowers…blah blah blah.

But since these two are mainstream and they’ve been in a few movies, they’re fair game.

Let’s talk Superman first.

His powers (at least in the movies) are absurd. He can seemingly take limitless punishment, as long as the ones dealing out the punishment don’t use Kryptonite. He flies. He lifts impossible weights. He shoots fire from his eyes. He can breathe in outer space. No elements appear to affect him. Maybe some of the aforementioned wizards would know of a way to stop him.

But I don’t. And so he takes spot #2 on the list.

As for Wonder Woman…well…

She’s a master of hand-to-hand combat. And that’s all well and good.

But she’s also decked out in a full array of divine gear. Without it, she’d lose a fight to pretty much anyone else on this list. But with it…she’s damn near unstoppable.

Her sword can cut atomic particles. Her bracelets are completely invincible. Her lasso makes everyone else tell the truth, which is extremely powerful if you think about it.

Other characters, even the magic-wielding ones, would be hard-pressed to stop her. I’m not sure whether she’s #2 and Superman’s #3, or vice versa.

And I’m not sure it matters.

Also considered for this spot – No one in particular

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# 1

Morgoth (The Silmarillion)

Morgoth holding the Silmarils – Ron Foerster

Most powerful of the Ainur, Morgoth (or Melker, as he was once known) was the tyrant of Middle Earth long before little Sauron came to power.

His powers were many:

Shape-changing. Orc-breeding. Dragon-ruling. World-creating (and destroying.)

Tolkien describes him as having more power than all his brethren (the Valar) combined. If he hadn’t spread his power so wide in his quest for dominion, he might’ve ruled Middle Earth until the end of all days.

Alas…in his arrogance…

Also considered for this spot – Lucifer (Paradise Lost)

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Notable mentions:

Darkness (Legend) – He can permanently end the sun’s reign. He can summon fire, twist the desires of mortals, and command various evil entities to do his bidding. His one problem: he couldn’t defeat Tom Cruise in a one-on-one duel. Also, he fell in love with Mia Sara (as did we all.) Shame on you, Darkness. You almost made the list.

Sauron (Lord of the Rings) – Ah, Sauron. You would’ve made the list if not for your boss (Morgoth) and the fact that you tied up too much of your power in a tiny little ring. Do better next time.

Intentionally left out:

Queen Bavmorda (Willow) – She’s an (almost) all powerful witch. She once turned an entire army into harmless pigs. She commands a mighty army of ruthless, skullmask-wearing warriors. But…and it’s a big but…she loses her final battle to a ‘peck,’ accidentally exiling herself to the nether world while fighting lil’ Willow. Step up your game, Bavmorda.

The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz) – You died. To a little girl. With a bucket of water. Don’t they make magic spells to stop that sort of thing from happening? Must’ve sucked never being able to go outside in the rain.


If you like powerful characters, formidable wizards, and impossible-to-kill monsters, try some of these.

Until next time.

J Edward

The Best Break-ups Ever

During a blazing hot summer, I interviewed nearly four-hundred people.

At bars, on the street, via Facebook.

I took their 101 funniest, weirdest, and most off-the-wall break-up stories…

…and slammed them all into this book:

101 Reasons to Break Up

Read it. Laugh at it. Review the hell out of it.

Here’s nine sample break-ups.

Now available for just $0.99.

J Edward Neill

9 Reasons to Break Up With Someone

Nine Reasons to Break Up with Someone

True-life tales…

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Uncommon Ground

I never really minded her dislike of baseball. Or MMA. Or most of the things I hold dear.

But when she told me she’d never seen Office Space or Grandma’s Boy, I knew the end was near.

– Christopher

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Like Son, Like Father

She always wanted to hang out at my parents’ place.

She especially liked my dad.

My parents had recently separated, but decided to live in separate parts of the house.

I don’t really need to finish this story, do I?

– Anonymous

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First Time’s a Charm

I’d been dating a beautiful girl for many months, but we hadn’t yet been intimate. I wanted to wait because I didn’t want to mess things up.

Five months in, I cracked and we have sex for the first time at my house.

It was great. No complaints.

I went to work the next morning and told her the place was hers for the day. When I came home that afternoon, I found tiny hearts drawn with lipstick all over the house.

In the shower. On the mirrors. On the glass cabinet doors. Even one on my iPad screen.

It was too much. I bailed.

– Jeff

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Gag Order

Every time he brushed his teeth, he’d gag horribly. I couldn’t stand it.

He’d have made a terrible gay guy.

– Michele

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She gets around better than you think…

My guy was always super sweet to my female friend who’d been partially paralyzed during a skiing accident. He’d push her wheelchair up ramps. He’d give her rides and help her get into the car. He even landed her a job.

I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I went to her apartment and found him pushing ‘other’ things.

Afterward, I managed to keep her as a friend.

Although sometimes when I see steep hills, I imagine how easy it would be…

– Anonymous

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Slow and Steady Loses the Race

She wouldn’t stop bringing stray animals into the house.

And by stray animals, I mean turtles.

– Gary

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Mixed Signals

Our break-up argument started over the small matter of me messing up her Netflix movie queue. Apparently my favorites weren’t the same as our favorites.

She dumped me over it. It was ok. I understood.

But she never actually deleted me as a guest user. So I’m still able to login and watch movies on her account.

And I get to see what her new boyfriend likes to watch.

– Joe

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A Two-and-a-Half Way?

My fiancée and I lived in a small downtown apartment. Even so, we liked to host parties for our friends.

One night, we ran out of beer near the party’s end, so I walked down to the local convenient store to get a six-pack. When I returned, everything was dark and quiet. I figured all the guests had gone home.

Nope.

I walked into my bedroom to find my girl in bed with another couple. They tried inviting me in (as if that was the plan all along) but I felt too disgusted.

Even if the ‘extra’ girl had been a supermodel, I wouldn’t have done it. But she was a dwarf – about four feet tall.

– Russell

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Another Reason to Ditch Cable

 Several of my buddies told me they believed my wife was having an affair, but since none offered any evidence, I gave her the benefit of the doubt.

But then one fateful day I came home early to find her sleeping naked on the couch and a man asleep in our bed. When I confronted the man, he said he was the TV repair man, and that he’d passed out due to working long hours.

I went to the living room to wake up my wife, but the guy slipped out the window.

…and took my TV with him.

– Anonymous

* * *

For 90 more real-life break-up stories, try this.

For happier endings, go here.

Write Tipsy, Edit Sober

In his latest book, J Edward sips scotch, bourbon, and deep, dark whiskey with every chapter.

No topic goes untouched.

No cocktail is spared.

 Life & Dark Liquor

A tipsy memoir by J Edward Neill

Now available at Amazon.

Get a sample of stories and sips right here.

Life & Dark Liquor is the ‘sequel’ to Reality is Best Served with Red Wine.

A Kickstarter for the Kids – Hello! Fat Crow!

Is it Fall yet? More importantly, has the feeling
for the season of Halloween started? For some people
this is just another passing holiday, but for others, it’s
a yearly tradition that starts the second the change is in
the air.
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ATLANTA, GA. – AUGUST, 2017 – Comic book creator/artist, Jason
Flowers tries his hand at making a fun children’s story.
But not just any normal kids book, this one represents the
season of Halloween. He constructed the project and released
it on August 22nd through www.Kickstarter.com called: Hello! Fat Crow! A story of a little fat crow that ventures to an old forgotten cemetery to wake a skeleton named Mister Larry so that he may go and dig up his four brothers to get into mischief on Halloween night.
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“When describing the book I try to explain the story as told in the rhyming styles of Dr. Seuss with fun spooky illustrations done in the style of the old Disney’s Skeleton dance cartoon,” says the artist. “Whenever reading bedtime stories to my daughter we could never really find many great Halloween books. A few were good, some were okay, but most just fell short of what made Halloween so great to us. So one day I thought up this idea of a little fat crow that goes to visit a skeleton to wake him up. Over the years I drew doodles and ideas here and there which finally led to me writing the story out a few years ago. Fast forward to today
and as part of a personal goal to make long awaited projects, the season is coming
up and it was finally time to unleash this idea upon the world!”
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Already given Kickstarter’s seal of approval, also known as a “Project that we
love” you can see why this book has already gained such great attention just by
watching the vintage, comedic, Halloween video talking about the book, artist
Jason Flowers created with his wife.
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The book is being sold as 8.5 x 11 inches in size and forty-four pages in length
with perfect bond binding. Colored in the traditional fall and Halloween colors (orange, white, and black) the creative and moody illustrations, along with the detailed environments help make and bring this fun and spooky kids book to life.
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Scrolling down the campaign page you can see a wide arrange of pledges
available to choose from. Starting at a digital download of the book to physical
copies, bookmarks, tshirts, limited prints, sketch drawings, or hand made original
sculptures.
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Asking for a $5,000 project goal in a thirty-one day time frame, Hello! Fat crow!,
well into it’s second week, has already reached more than $1300 in pledges and
with the help of more supporters this book will be funded in no time~
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For more information visit the link to the Kickstarter:

www.kickstarter.com/projects/698068505/hello-fat-crow

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KICKSTARTER DESCRIPTION:

Hello! Fat crow! Tells the story of a little fat crow that ventures to an old forgotten cemetery to wake a skeleton named Mister Larry so that he may go and dig up his four brothers to get into mischief on Halloween night.

The book measures 8.5×11 inches in size and is forty-four pages long. The story is told in the rhyming styles of Dr. Seuss with fun spooky illustrations done in the style of the old Disney’s Skeleton dance cartoon.

Check out these sample panels!


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Reach out to the creator, Jason Flowers, at contactjasonsart@yahoo.com
Jason Flowers is a full-time Freelance Comic Book/Sketch Card Artist from Atlanta, GA. Currently he is illustrating his new creator owned books, Hello! Fat crow! and A.A.I Wars. His past work include numerous sketch card sets for UPPERDECK CARDS and TOPPS CARDS for companies like DISNEY and MARVEL. His comic book work has been published in Image Comics, Arcana Comics, and Black Thumb Press. Between comic and sketch card work, he is constantly creating various designs for clients on t-shirts, logos, album covers and art prints.

Two Big Reasons I Don’t Ever Discuss Politics

 

At the time of writing this, the United States is in the sixth month of a new presidency.

Donald Trump, the nation’s forty-fifth president, appears to have everyone in the world riled up. His approval ratings are in the tank, his fact-checking is dubious, and his hair is…well…weird.

But he’s still the president.

Everyone I know has an opinion on Trump. Even people who don’t ordinarily care about politics have put away their umbrellas and stepped into the storm.

The insults are endless.

If such things as sides exist – they really don’t – but if they do, both have reached new lows in terms of communicative ability. People identifying themselves as conservative seem willing to prop their guy up no matter his gaffes. Others who call themselves liberal throw a tantrum at each and every presidential slight, real or perceived.

For lack of a better term, it’s a shit-show.

It’s the kind of thing to make me drink.

And so I shall.

To smother any chance of partisan thought brewing in my mind, I’ve chosen a strong pinot noir tonight. Thor’s Well, they call it. It smells of cherries, blackberries, and deep, dark earth. While sipping on such a thing, I’m not sure anyone could possibly dwell in hostile political thought for longer than a few seconds.

Actually…

I’m wrong.

They can.

I’m on an island. Water on all sides. Deep, dark water filled with congressional sharks and democratically-elected men o’ war. The only living creatures in my bubble uninterested in partisan warfare are my cats, the birds, and maybe the mosquitoes.

Even my son, the G Man, has an opinion of Trump.

He gets it from his mother.

Ever wanted to know how to predict an argument? How to tell when someone’s about to launch a political tirade?

It’s easy. Really easy.

It always starts the same way. It goes a little something like this:

“I never rant about politics, but—”

Six little words. Only the one word matters. ‘But’ – the all-powerful term negating everything uttered before it.

“I used to be married, but—”

“I tried hummus one time, but—”

“I never post political rants online, but—”

Notice how none of these sentences need to be finished.

We know what’s coming next.

The year is…I don’t know.

I’m married. I don’t have a kid yet. I’m somewhere between twenty-nine and thirty-four years old.

It’s a beautiful evening in far northern Georgia. The city’s name is Dahlonega, gold rush capital of the southeast, if such a thing exists. The house I’m at is a handsome log cabin. Deep woods and shallow creeks surround it on all sides. A huge garden sits beside it, emptied out ahead of the coming winter.

I can’t imagine a more pleasant way to spend Thanksgiving Eve.

Well…

While my in-laws, wife, and family friends relax inside in advance of the feast, I’m out walking the dog. She’s a large, powerful German shepherd named Maggie. Everyone who knows me knows I’m not particularly fond of dogs; I’ve been bitten more than I can remember.

But — and there’s that word again – Maggie is somehow fond of me. We sprint up and down the hill behind the house. I hurl tennis balls into the woods, and she retrieves them. It’s great exercise and a ton of fun. I’m pretty sure she won’t murder me.

At least I think I’m sure.

More than anything, playing with Maggie keeps me from being cooped up inside too long.

From getting bored.

From falling down the rabbit hole of conversation that always seems to happen this time of year.

Alas, it’s dinnertime.

I can’t complain. Not even a little. My mother-in-law Julie is an excellent cook. This year she’s whipped up a ham, scalloped potatoes, homemade dressing, and biscuits. She’s also serving champagne and wine, which pretty much perfect the meal.

I help set the table.

I pour a deep glass of wine.

And I dig in.

We’re a lively bunch, if few in number. There’s John, as outrageous a storyteller as any in the world. We’ve got Marc, a bitter divorcee with a sharp wit and excellent sense of humor. Beside me sits Larry, my father-in-law and a professional photographer. And there’s Julie, the night’s host and an elegant conversationalist.

And of course, my wife.

The board is set. The pieces are moving.

We begin with a toast. It’s my responsibility this year, same as every year. The smells of fresh, piping hot ham are almost too much for me to bear, yet somehow I weave my way through several compliments aimed squarely at Julie. Always be kind to the cook, I figure. Always tip your server.

We begin feasting. At first, everyone is too busy lifting forks and draining wine to talk much. I’m pretty sure I overhear Marc protest the unfairness of his divorce settlement. And John definitely tells a few stories, none of which are true, but all of which are entertaining.

It’s not while I’m filling my plate a second time the conversation takes its predictable downward turn.

It’s when I head back for thirds.

It’s like they’ve timed it for when I’m happiest.

Before dinner began, I implored the group to stray far from certain topics:

The war in Afghanistan

Immigration

Who voted for whom

But…

I return to the table. I hear the word ‘president’ escape someone’s lips. I halt before sitting. Are we doing this again? I wonder.

Yes. We are.

I listen. I keep eating. I say nothing.

“…worst president ever,” I hear.

“…so stupid. Terrible policies.”

“…I know a guy who voted for him. We’re not friends anymore.”

“…can you believe what he said the other day?”

“Jeremy? Got anything to add?”

No, I want to shout. I came here to eat and relax in the company of friends and family.

But no one really cares what I want.

And so I’m silent.

They keep going. At some point, Julie serves pie and champagne. I do my best to help, heaping whipped cream atop plates, airlifting dirty dishes to the sink. Despite her participation in the dining room warfare, I can tell Julie is uncomfortable with it all. The conversation has adopted a vicious tone. What began as a few barbs directed toward the commander-in-chief is now a full-scale indictment of every aspect of our government.

She’s a resilient gal, our Julie.

But like all the rest, she’s sucked in.

I trudge back to the table, pie in hand. The hour is late. I peer around the house, searching for Maggie, but she’s asleep on her bed. There won’t be an evening walk for her.

The champagne is sweet and strong.

The pie is magnificent.

The conversation is disgusting.

They’re arguing now. Someone dared to agree offhandedly with one of the prez’s policies. Someone else challenged the mild agreement with an expletive. I’m not even sure who said what any longer. I’m pretending my pie is a wall between me and the rest of the dining room.

No, not that kind of wall.

“…illegal immigrants,” someone blurts. I’m not sure of the context, not that it matters.

“…dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“…fucking rednecks.”

“…you sound like a communist.”

There’s a break in the action. Big John is pissed at my wife, and vice versa. Julie is flustered. Marc has retreated to the fireplace. Larry and I just look at each other as if to say, “We knew this was going to happen.”

I’ve done this dance before.

With precision timing, I guide my wife toward the door. Julie intercepts us with bowls of leftovers, which we shuttle quickly out to the car.

It’s gonna be a brutal drive home.

And one thing’s for certain:

We’re doing it again next year.

Not many people appreciate my view of our country’s government. Of the voting process. Of this thing we call democracy.

That’s ok. The small amount of scorn I’ve endured isn’t nearly equal to the frustration I see expressed by other people my age. Everyone’s angry. Even the people who say they’re not angry betray themselves when posting comments online.

As if typing words into Facebook matters.

If they only knew the power of Thor’s Well. I sip my wine. Maybe they wouldn’t be so upset.

Nah.

They’d probably still rage.

It’s late now. The fireflies wink at me just beyond the glass door. A brooding Hans Zimmer soundtrack thrums in the background.

I close my eyes and consider many things.

In our government, the focus lies primarily on winning and losing. The winner, presumably taking power by virtue of earning more votes, has the power to enact policies with only his supporters in mind. He can effectively ignore the will of everyone who didn’t support him.

Or…

If he desires, he can enact policies with no one’s interests in mind save his own.

What this means is: if a politician so chooses, he can ignore the needs of tens of millions of people. Whether he won the election by a hundred-thousand votes.

Or by two.

And what this means is: a large portion of United States citizens will spend a significant portion of their lives with little to no government representation. These people can protest, challenge in court, and vote until they’re blue in the face. But ultimately, barring a revolution, if their candidate loses, the winning party can ignore them almost completely.

With impunity.

Winner-take-all – it’s not a system designed to be fair.

And it doesn’t matter.

Our government isn’t here to save us. Or feed us. Or protect us.

The person – whoever it is – we just elected to office doesn’t care about every individual. It’s impossible. We only know the contents of our own bubble.

And while politicians’ bubbles might be bigger than most, they’re still limited.

Which means we are, all of us, alone.

That’s what the wine says, anyway.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll be slightly more optimistic.

 I wish I had another deeply personal story for this segment.

As it turns out, avoiding partisanship with such escapist vigor leaves me at a loss to describe much of my political experience.

And so I’ll lean back, sip my wine, and illustrate the modern political scene using my trusty friend, the internet.

The date is June 13th, 2017. I’ve pulled each of the following conversations verbatim from the web. The comments were published today, meaning this is but a small sample of the world we live in.

…and the world we’ve bargained for.

*

Our first example is a conversation regarding the Golden State Warriors – the championship-winning NBA basketball team – and their indecision regarding whether or not to attend a meet-and-greet at the White House.

The flames start early.

And burn hot.

*

Angela says:

“Pass on it. Next year when you win another prez will be in office. Hopefully one that has equal respect for all and does right by the country at all levels.”

Frank replies:

“Shut your stupid fkn mouth.”

Jacqueline replies:

FYI presidents are in office for 4 years so get over it, others put up with your choice for 8 long years.”

Michael replies:

“Yea, like Frank said, what do you think? You’re in America and you have freedoms? All bow to Emperor Frank!”

Richard (a white guy) replies:

“Your license plate should read “In African American Racism We Trust”!

Mary replies:

“Apparently you are not familiar with our legal policies. You actually have to break the law to be impeached. Being rich is not illegal.”

Kym says:

“Getting sick of all these celebrities that are only famous because of something they do and we pay money for. YOU don’t have to like someone, but it’s the White House…it’s an honor…people get denied to tour it all the time. I was there last summer and it was an amazing experience. Stop allowing politics to ruin everyone’s ability to experience things that they would never get to do.”

Dave replies:

“I’m sick of women who don’t know anything about sports commenting on them. Back to the kitchen you go. And who told you to voice your opinion on the internet?”

Peter says:

“The problem is that this is really a non-story. The press will not let it go, and will blow it up just to get people hating each other.”

Jerry replies:

“Well Kym, ask the white house if you can take the Warriors’ place.”

Mike says:

“It’s only an honor if the president and his administration weren’t a gaggle of f**ktards.”

Cody says:

“Getting sick of these celebrities, especially the one who got elected president.”

Gina replies:

“You’re all morons.”

*

Didn’t take long, did it? Dave’s women-in-the-kitchen comment is obvious sarcasm, but everyone else is dead serious.

That said, I tend to agree with Gina.

 *

This next battle broke out immediately after President Trump blocked famed author Stephen King from Twitter, after which Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling rushed to Stephen’s defense.

That’s right. A president has embroiled himself in a Twitter war.

You couldn’t make up better headlines if you tried.

*

Robert begins:

“I put Trump on block 3 years ago, that guy was a dumbass then and is an even bigger dumbass now lol. Fuck his twitter.”

Rodrigo fires back:

“Dumbass that is the POTUS and a billionaire. Whats ur claim to fame? A motorcycle lol.”

Alec replies:

Rodrigo is an idiot. After Trump embezzled millions and yet people are like ‘no he didn’t’ when I can pull up multiple occasions of times he’s been fined 25k for his dad buying millions of dollars in poker chips and not using the chips (which is illegal) to help trump with his failed businesses.”

Alec says:

A man that created ‘Trump University’ gave people fake diplomas and then got shut down after not too long and you still think he’s a genius. Maybe at fucking people like you and I over. Lmao.”

Norma chimes in:

J.K. should shut her damn British mouth and stay out of it.”

Kyle replies:

More and more people are complete jerks online. What ever happened to all that crap about bullying?

Ruth asks:

“When is JK taking refugees into her mansion again?”

Bruce replies:

“Trump is jealous of anyone more successful than him. So sad.”

Michele questions:

Why do they want Trump’s attention so badly?”

Holly replies:

“So immature. Hollywood idiots, let the man do his job.”

Bruce says:

He doesn’t want to do the job. He should do his job and forget about Twitter period. So sad you can’t see the humor in this.”

Harry says:

She’ll get blocked, too. Mark my words.”

Melinda asks ironically:

“Does anyone really care?????”

Mary says:

“Guess anyone can block whomever they want, right?”

And then Mary adds:

Both are whiners.”

WD Hawley brings the pain:

Really who gives a shit, damn libtards.”

Susana fires back:

What a coward.”

And a different Mary finishes it off by asking:

“Are we still in high school?”

*

This thread continued for another three-hundred eighty-seven comments. And it was just one of many conversations in which people sounded off on the Trump vs. King vs. Rowling issue.

Which, by my make-believe math, means approximately five-hundred million people took time out of their days to type meaningless words into a meaningless thread in which zero minds were changed.

Go figure.

I actually played a little game while reading these comments. I counted how many sips of wine I polished off before stumbling across the term, ‘libtard.’

I finished one sip.

Just one.

In the wee hours of the morning, I’m still awake.

Maybe it’s the wine. Or perhaps my rare excursion into the online partisan battlefield lit a hotter fire beneath me than hoped.

The reality is – despite people’s appearance on the internet – we’re all individuals. We have our own needs, our own opinions, and all we really want is to thrive within our separate bubbles.

I know it’s hard to believe. My wine is gone, but I’m not sad for it.

I’m sad for people.

I’m embarrassed.

And so I’ll sleep and say no more about politics.

*

Want to keep talking? Go here.

Prefer to argue about politics? Maybe this will light your fire.

*

J Edward Neill

Coming Soon – Life & Dark Liquor

Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

– Peter De Vries, Reuben, Reuben

*

And so I shall.

At least two cocktails per chapter.

…to soften the senses and open doors long-shut.

*

Coming soon…

Life & Dark Liquor

‘Sequel’ to Reality is Best Served with Red Wine

**

Having survived winter in the Chicago suburbs, J Edward Neill descends to Atlanta, where summers are mercilessly hot and every evening invites new adventures.

In the Deep South, he discovers new places, new friendships, and new cocktails.

Alternatively calm and stormy, exuberant and lonely, his latest bounce between bottles digs into the life of an ordinary author living in a strange and unpredictable world. Life and Dark Liquor is both a memoir and philosophical piece, ranging through topics both small and grandiose:

Single fatherhood.

Holding on to relationships.

Searching for creativity.

Marriage, divorce, and the hardest parts of being human.

And what’s more…

J Edward sips scotch, bourbon, and deep, dark whiskey with every chapter. No topic goes untouched.

No cocktail is spared.

 

*

Life & Dark Liquor

Coming in August 2017

 

Why You Should Review Everything

 StarNursery

 

Where are stars born?

Far beyond Earth?

Deep in the heart of the Milky Way?

Amongst the countless nebulae swirling through the void?

Nope. Not today they’re not.

This one’s for the readers. For all the Kindle lovers, trade paperback eaters, and hardcover crushers. It’s a request…well…more of a plea. Like the song says – “I ain’t too proud to beg.” Except the ‘I‘ is really ‘we‘, and the ‘we‘ is every self-respecting author and artist on the planet.

We need you.

It’s a different perspective on this side of the industry. Used to be, after reading a good book or listening to a great album, I’d say, “I don’t need to post a review for this. It’s good enough. It’ll get plenty of love from someone else.” But no more. I’ve seen the light. Reviews, particularly easily-accessible online reviews, are artists’ lifeblood. And not just the ridiculous, fan-boy five-star reviews. All of them. Better to have fifty 4-star reviews than ten at 5 stars. Better to have a hundred with 3 than twenty with 4.

how-to-get-amazon-reviews<—  See these little guys? These are an author’s ticket to success. Without ’em, the modern artist tends to starve. While a few bad reviews won’t break a book or dry up interest in an album, NO reviews at all is a death knell. When a potential customer arrives at a site and sees ‘Be the first to review this item?‘ the result is usually crickets. Cemeteries. Graveyards where creative dreams go to die.

Maybe the customer will take a leap of faith, but not likely. I know I wouldn’t, not unless the artist was a friend.

I think you get the point. This is my plea to you: If you buy a book, an album, or a piece of art, review it. I plan to make it a habit, an honest-to-goodness lifestyle change. The important thing to remember is that the review should be honest. Don’t auto five-star everything. Be genuine. Be legit. Be thorough.

Need help learning how to review stuff on Amazon? No problem.

Check out this little guide.

And this one, too.

*

If you love it? Review it.

Hate it? Review it.

Overcome with crushing indifference? R-e-v-i-e-w it.

And while you’re at it, read and review these. I’ll love you for at least three minutes.

J Edward Neill

What’s 1 Little Japanese Maple Worth?

It’s the summer of 2016, and I’m poolside.

I’ve been living in a swanky apartment for a few months now. It’s about as close to Atlanta one can live without technically leaving the ‘burbs. I’m across the street from a high-end bar. I can hear the highway traffic roaring by.

But look, there’s still trees.

And no smog.

Life is pretty good.

The pool is packed today. Since the G Man and I started swimming here, the water has never been this populated. I count at least thirty kids and forty adults. Both poolside grills are smoking. It’s sizzling hot beneath the sun, but no one seems to mind. I’m lounging beside a beautiful girl, observing our sons as they splash the day away.

It doesn’t get much better than this.

The G Man and I love swimming so much, we come here every day. Sometimes at night. Sometimes even when it’s raining.

As the afternoon deepens, I’m enjoying conversation with my pool-date. Her son and mine have hit it off well. So well, in fact, they’ve been splashing, water-blasting, and half-drowning each other for the last three hours. We’re waiting for them to tire.

It’s not looking promising.

And so we sit, relax, and soak up the rays. We may look like we’re talking, but our eyes never stray far from our kids. Everyone else in the world can drown if they want, just not these two.

As it turns out, no one’s drowning today.

Whew.

But there’s still trouble.

A crowd of kids has gathered in the shallow end. They’re all several years older than the G Man, and they’re packing all kinds of heat – in the form of giant water guns. One kid has a pump-action shotgun blaster. Another has a water gun as massive as a military-grade RPG launcher.

At first, I think maybe they’re planning an assault on G Man and his new friend. I’m no helicopter parent, but if their plan is to bully my boy, I’m ready to dive in and fight everyone to the death.

Nope.

They’re not gunning for the G Man.

Their target: the red Japanese maple growing just outside the pool. It’s in a huge ceramic pot, and the kids are hosing down its leaves.

Thing is – our perfect little pool is filled with saltwater. Too much salt, and the Japanese maple will wither. And at the rate these kids are blasting it, the little tree doesn’t stand a chance.

Should I stop these kids?

Or would intervening precipitate an argument with more dads than I can handle?

I’m in my lounge chair, taking too long to decide. This is G Man’s moment. When his dad waffles, he steps up.

“Stop!” he screams at a pitch no one else in the world can match.

The kids all look at him. He’s a small guy, just forty pounds. Most of them are twice his size. He’s got no chance if it comes to blows.

They keep shooting.

“Stop!” he shouts again. “That’s salt water. You’re killing it.”

Ok. I’m kind of impressed.

I don’t remember teaching my son about the dangers of salt water to terrestrial flora. It may be that I once mentioned it offhandedly, that we grazed the topic during one of our epic-length scientific discussions.

Doesn’t matter.

He knows, and he’s pissed.

“Take your guns and go to the other side of the pool,” he instructs. The kids look at him like he’s just slapped them. They don’t know who they’re messing with. They don’t understand how one little kid could seek justice…for a tree.

I sit up, but I don’t intervene. Not yet. I want to see how far he’s willing to go to protect this lonely little tree.

“Water won’t kill it,” one of the kids says. “Trees like water.”

“Not salt water.” G Man glares. “The salt will get into the roots. It’ll kill the tree.”

He’s not calm, but he’s not shouting anymore. Standing his ground, he stares the tree’s attackers down. They’re still not sure what to do.

And while they stand in the shallows, pumping water into their guns, but not yet firing, one of their moms comes over. She takes G Man’s side and redirects the ruffians to the pool’s far side.

As suddenly as it began, the standoff ends.

The tree is safe for now.

When I wade into the water to console the G Man – and commend his bravery – I expect him to be angry at the other kids. They tried to kill a tree, after all. He and I have had a thousand talks about protecting nature whenever we can.

But he’s not mad at them.

He’s angry with me.

He tells me I should’ve, “Kicked all the kids’ butts.”

And maybe he’s right.

Maybe I should have.

The tree, just one life among the many at the pool that day, was worth protecting.

Someone had to stand up for it.

And so he did.

We may think we’re teaching our children.

But often they’re teaching us.

* * *

For more stories like this, go here.

J Edward Neill

Will she survive?

My name is Lys.

And like most people who survived the plague, my life is something other than what I dreamed.

* * *

In a rotten prison cellar, I awoke. I wanted to believe morning had come, but without windows I could only wish. Rain leaked through the ceiling in more places than I could count, while the rats scurried to escape the widening puddles.

Thunder rolled.

The brick walls clattered.

I feared the whole place might crumble atop me.

Somehow, the other girls slept through it.

But I didn’t.

I’d hardly slept for the last nine years.

I’d left something undone.

I sat up, and my mattress squelched beneath me. The stink made my eyes water. Even though my bunk lay beneath two others, it hadn’t slowed the decay. The rats loved tunneling through the moldering cloth. I’d have preferred to sleep in a swamp.

Our prison, one of dozens in the wretched city of Tiev, had no windows, no hearth, and only one rusted iron door.

I’d been there so long, I’d forgotten what the world looked like.

I clambered out of bed and padded to the round table in the cellar’s heart. My toes hurt every time they touched the cold, wet floor. My waifish dress, tattered and too revealing, sagged on my skinny shoulders. Like every morning, I wondered what I looked like.

I hadn’t seen a mirror in years. The blonde ringlets I’d had as a child were long gone.

No matter what the other girls said, I was sure I’d become an ugly, ruined thing.

I swatted two rats off the table and tore a chunk off the loaf of bread they’d been nibbling. Used to be, I’d run in terror from the rats. We’d never had them at Luka’s house. If there’s one thing the cruel apothecary had been good at, it’d been keeping things clean.

Everything had changed once the men in red and black had come.

They’d murdered Luka and captured our caretaker, Murgul.

I’d meant to save Murgul from their clutches, but I’d failed.

Now I’m here until I turn eighteen.

Until they take me away to become a rich man’s concubine.

One by one, the other girls woke. Marida, the raven-haired beauty, slid off her top bunk and joined me at the table. She said nothing when I broke off another chunk of bread and dropped it into her hands. She hadn’t spoken in days.

She’s knows she’s next.

Next came Breta, Charla, and Yen. The three girls were the best of friends, if something so profound as friendship could exist in our sad little dungeon. They’d been orphaned after a great fire had swept through their city. The promise of a new life far from danger had been a lie, and the black wagons had swept them away with the rest of us.

We were to become chattel, wives to the wretched old men who’d lost their families to the plague.

“Morning,” Breta greeted me. Her dark eyes betrayed her jealousy. If I hadn’t been older and taller, she’d have stripped my bread right out of my hands.

“Morning,” I managed.

The three girls took what remained of the dry, stale loaf. In the light of four lamps, whose fires cast a sickly light across our faces, we stood and ate.

“Look at us,” Breta complained as she chewed. “We’re no better than the rats. You’d think if they wanted us pretty for our new husbands, they’d feed us better.”

Yen, wisest of the three friends, shook her head. Even with the scar on her cheek, I envied her prettiness.

“In Tiev, no one eats better than the rats,” she said.

No one.

I peered at the five little girls across the room. In a single bunk, they huddled and whispered fearful things. I hadn’t learned their names yet. They’d only arrived three nights ago, and were mostly too terrified to speak to us.

“I wish they’d feed the young ones better,” I said. “They’ll never last on bread and water.”

Breta shot me a glare. Cruelty blazed in her dark eyes. I pitied her husband-to-be.

“What are you saying?” she snapped. “We don’t deserve as much food as they do? We’ve been here for years. We’re closer to being married than they are.”

“Feed the fattest pigs first, is that it?” I said without raising my voice. “And you assume our marriages are real. For all we know, we’re to become breeders. Or mine workers. Or food for the Iritul hounds.”

I felt sorry the moment I said it. I saw Marida, oldest among us, close her eyes.

She could go any day now, I knew.

I should shut my mouth.

“What do you know?” Breta wouldn’t give it up. “You’re only here because you’re stupid. What kind of fool leaves her home and abandons her friends? Don’t you know, Lys? There’s no such thing as the Branded. They don’t exist. You were chasing a lie.”

It’s not a lie, I wanted to say.

And I did it for the only friend who mattered.

If I’d wanted, I could’ve argued with Breta for hours. But there seemed little point. She was right, after all. I’d run away from a safe life and sought help from a vagabond. In my wild, nine-year old mind, I’d fled into a world I hadn’t fully understood.

And when the men in red and black had caught me, I hadn’t even screamed.

I retreated to my bed. While the older girls played Oubliette using worn pieces and a weathered board, I sat and watched.

I’d almost drifted to sleep when they came for Marida.

The first man swung the door wide on its rusted hinges. The second two, dressed in blackened leather, stormed into the room.

They didn’t have to ask Marida’s name.

Everyone knew she was the most beautiful.

With heavy boots and armored shoulders, they tore her from her stool at the table. I saw her breath leave her as they closed their gloved fingers around her narrow wrists, hauling her away as if she were lighter than air. The man waiting at the door dropped a dark sackcloth over her head. She sobbed just once. Then she was gone.

And then they came for me.

I didn’t expect it. My eighteenth birthday hadn’t yet come, or so I’d convinced myself. The truth was – I didn’t know my birthday. Like the others, I’d been orphaned at birth.

“Come ‘ere, pretty,” the impossibly broad man took hold of my upper arm. His breath reeked of wine, and his grip was the strongest I’d ever suffered.

I didn’t resist him, and yet he dragged me across the room as though I were a sack of potatoes. I managed a last look at Breta, who for the first and final time wore something resembling sympathy in her eyes. And I saw the children, who clung to their blankets and shivered so hard their bones must’ve hurt.

A dark hallway opened up before me.

The sackcloth came down over my eyes.

Grunting, two men led me up several stairwells. I heard Marida a few steps ahead, breathing hard beneath her sackcloth. I felt the urge to fight, to tear away the daggers I’d seen on the men’s waists and carve my way into the sunlight.

But I didn’t dare.

I knew what happened to those who resisted. I’d seen the men in black and red light pyres, sharpen axes, and tie nooses by the hundred. The Inquisitor who ruled Tiev had no time for mercy. Most times, I’d wondered how anyone in the city survived his reign.

The men hauled me outside. I felt my bare feet sink into the mud, the wind caress my neck, and the fragile sunlight fall on my shoulders. It felt so good I wanted to cry. But crying was something else I hadn’t done in years.

“Get inside.” One of my captors pushed me into a dark space. I heard Marida beside me, choking back her tears. They’d put us into a wagon, the same kind in which they’d kidnapped me many years ago.

“If you behave, there’s more than bread for you,” a man said. “You’re bound for Eos. Your husbands await you. It’s a better life than most girls your age ever see.”

A better life? I thought.

No. It’s death. Slow, but still death.

They shut the wagon doors. Although the autumn breeze had chilled me, the dark space inside the wagon felt stuffy.

I couldn’t help myself.

I removed my sackcloth.

“Tiny windows.” I inhaled the cold, dank air. “Doors barred from the outside. There’s another compartment, but it’s empty. Wherever we’re going, we’re going alone.”

As expected, Marida heard me.

“You took your sack off?” she said. “They’ll kill you for that.”

“No they won’t,” I said. “Someone’s paid money for us. If we show up dead or bruised, whoever bought us won’t be happy.”

“How do you know that?”

“I don’t,” I admitted. “It’s just a guess.”

The wagon jerked into motion. The horses pulling it must’ve been powerful to pull the huge wooden coffin with such ease. At first, we bounced in our seats. Tiev’s roads were as rotten as everything else in the city.

But soon our ride became smoother. Tiev’s clamor fell away, and we rolled along with ease.

“We’ve left the city,” I said.

“Is it night?” Marida asked. “Which way are we going?”

“No. Not night.” I peered through a barred window. “It’s noon, I think. The way the light looks, it feels like mid-autumn. That’s just a guess. It’d be easier if you took off your sackcloth. They’re not going to hurt—”

“I’m not afraid of being hurt,” she said. “I’m afraid of where they’re taking us. I don’t want to go back.”

“Back? Where?”

“To Eos. Or to Othis,” she said. “I hated the city before it burned. Imagine it now…so many dead…only the worst remain. And Ulka…he’s there. They say he can kill anyone he touches. The other girls don’t believe in the Branded, but I know. You’re right to be afraid.”

I heard only his name – Ulka.

I shivered so hard Marida must’ve heard me.

“You claimed you wanted to escape,” she said.

“Yes,” I murmured. “…escape.”

“How come you never tried?”

“I—”

I’m afraid.

Afraid of Ulka.

Afraid of his men.

Afraid they killed Murgul, my only friend in the world, long ago.

“I wanted to,” I said. “But I couldn’t. Our dungeon…too many guards. And even if I escaped, where would I go? No one’s looking for me. I have nothing.”

“Oh,” was all she said.

I heard much more in her voice.

I had a plan.

I was willing to risk everything for him.

I’m a coward.

For many hours, we rolled on. Except to shove a cup of water through the door, the men never troubled us. I gave the water to Marida, who held the cup in her hands, but never took a sip.

Lost in my head, I barely felt the wheels splinter.

The wagon groaned to a stop. I heard men cursing outside the windows. I knew a long while had passed. The light shone through the bars weaker than before, as pale and cold as the lamps in our prison had been.

“We’re not moving,” said Marida. She hadn’t uttered a word in several hours.

I tried to peer outside, but through the narrow window I saw only the flat horizon and the falling sun. I sensed we were far from civilization, somewhere in the wasteland between dead and dying cities.

I waited.

And I listened.

“…get the new wheel on,” one of the men spat.

“…night’s coming. Be quick about it.”

“…how far to the outpost?”

“…still a few more hours.”

I felt the wagon creak beneath me. The day’s last light crept through the window bars, warming my face for but a moment before fading.

“Murgul,” I said. “His name was Murgul.”

At last, Marida removed her sackcloth. She’d made a noble effort to keep it on, for all the good it had done her.

“Your friend?” she asked.

“Yes. More than a friend.” I closed my eyes. “He saved us as children…twice. When the men in red and black killed our keeper, it was Murgul who found food for us. He protected and loved us. He was horribly disfigured, but it didn’t matter. He was the best human I’ve ever met.”

“And you said—”

“Yes,” I interrupted. “Ulka took him, and I know why. Murgul was Branded. When he touched the sick, they got better. It felt cruel for him to be so ugly, yet have the power to drive others’ illness away. It’s why Ulka kidnapped him, I think. He must’ve hated Murgul’s power to give life, when his was to make death.”

“That was so long ago,” she reminded me.

“I know,” I said. “Doesn’t matter. I dream every night he’s still alive.”

“Even if he is…” She sounded sad. “…in Ulka’s hands, no one goes free.”

“That’s why I needed to find—”

The wagon lurched. I was sure they’d fixed the broken wheel, and that we were back on our way to the outpost they’d spoken of.

No.

We’re still not moving.

Something’s wrong.

I heard a crack beneath us. It sounded like a tree falling, only louder. The wagon tilted to its left, and Marida slid into my shoulder, knocking both of us into the hard wooden planks beneath the window.

The horses cried out.

The men cursed.

The axle split, crushing one of their legs.

A tangle of arms, legs, and hair, Marida and I floundered to sit upright. The wounded man’s screams made it no easier. He wailed loud enough to wake the dead, and though the others shouted at him to be silent, his cries shattered the twilit air.

We waited.

He suffered.

And as the darkness deepened, our fear arose.

“Did you hear it?” whispered Marida.

“Yes.”

The Iritul are coming.

The men tried without luck to push the wagon upright. I knew what they wanted.

“They’re trying to get inside with us,” I said.

“They’re afraid,” Marida agreed.

Though they tried with muscle and fear, the men couldn’t tip the wagon upright. The two doors leading inside were pinned too close to the wet earth. They shouted, spat at us, and called us names I’d never before heard, but we were as powerless as they.

“Cut the horses,” screamed one man. “We’ll ride them back.”

“Gods,” said another. “It’s too late.”

Howls cracked the eve. My skin crawled at the horrid sound, the chill in my bones hurting me. I looked at Marida, but we were both too terrified to make a sound.

In moments, the Iritul fell upon the wagon.

I heard a sword drawn and a gargling sound as its wielder died.

I felt shadows falling over us, the light dying faster than it should.

Horses reared and tore at their lashings, but they stood no chance. The sounds of their ligaments popping and bones breaking made me sick.

When three men fell silent, the fourth lay with his leg trapped beneath the wheel. I dared one glance out the window, and I saw his eyes full of horror. With his knife, he sawed at his boot.

Too late.

I looked away as the shadows darkened his face. He cried out one final time, and the Iritul made ribbons of him.

I knew the horrors smelled us. They were supernatural, the Iritul hounds, but retained all the senses of the noble beasts they’d been before the plague. They were living death, so evil in nature every child knew to fear them above all other things.

Even the plague itself.

The horrors finished their feast. I tried to shut out the sounds of bones breaking and flesh tearing, but I heard everything. They wanted to reach us, to feed on me and Marida. With claws and fangs, they rent the wagon’s outsides, carving deep gouges into the heavy planks.

But in the end, the wagon became our salvation.

The Iritul tired, and fled into the night seeking easier prey.

I woke Marida at dawn.

“We’re dead, you know,” she said while rubbing her eyes. “We can’t get out. If no one finds us, we’ll starve in here.”

“No,” I said.

It felt likely someone would find us, I explained. We’d broken down on the road between Tiev and Tolem, as well-traveled a trade path as any.

But I didn’t want to be found.

I wanted out.

“We should already be dead,” I gazed out the window above us. Grey light from the rising sun slanted between the bars. I wasn’t sure why it made my courage swell inside me. I felt something move within my heart, a feeling I hadn’t known since I’d been a child.

Hope.

“We’re getting out of here,” I said. “I’m going to find Murgul.”

“But—”

“Just help me.” I silenced her. “We have to get out long before night, else we’re done for.”

Marida didn’t have my fire. She never had. But whatever strength lived inside her, she found. And together we worked.

We kicked at the door beneath us. The Iritul had graven deep lines into the wood, which we hoped would make our work easier. We clawed at the gaps between each board. We stomped with our bare feet. When our legs tired, we beat on the wood with our fists.

And our elbows.

And our knees.

Marida wanted to give up. She talked about our lives not mattering, how we’d just end up in a slum or as slaves to cruel, lustful brigands. Each time she fell too low, I lifted her back up. I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I was the fire beneath us both, the whip behind the tired horse.

After four hours, we loosened one plank.

After five, I tore it loose, reached the dead man’s dagger, and carved a hole wide enough to put my leg through.

“Don’t stop. Next plank. Keep kicking,” I told Marida.

And she did.

* * *

The story above is continued here…

J Edward Neill

Read this heart-stopping short story

Lys & the Heart Stopper

A new $0.99 short story

Now available on Amazon

* * *

Imprisoned as a little girl, Lys awakens in the world’s lowest prison.

She’s to become a concubine to a faceless noble in a land far from her native home. But when fate intervenes, she seizes her only chance at freedom.

To save her long lost caretaker, she means to cross the wasteland of Vhur, in which the diseased Iritul have hunted humanity near to extinction.

No distance is too great.

She’ll do anything to rescue her friend.

Even if it means a confrontation with the deadliest man alive – The Heart Stopper.

*

*

Lys & the Heart Stopper is a standalone short story in the Hollow Empire – Night of Knives universe.

J Edward Neill

Dark Art Giveaway Contest!

It’s time for an Art Giveaway Contest!
It’s easy…
All you have to do is:

  •  Visit this Facebook page.
  • Post which one of J Edward Neill’s book covers you like the most AND add a brief explanation of why. (The link to the covers is here.)

Then…
From amongst everyone who posts, a winner will be chosen at random.
To the winner, we’ll ship one of the two 8×10″ paintings below (winner’ choice.) We’ll even cover shipping.

Winner chooses:

Cinder Tree

or…

Trapped in Amber


The contest starts now!
We’ll accept entries through Monday, July 17th at noon.
Good luck!

The Book of Wine…and Life.

In J Edward’s latest book, he promises to drain one bottle of red wine per chapter.

That’s the rule. 

There’s no breaking it.

 And while deep in his cups, he takes readers on a sometimes funny, sometimes poignant journey.  Playful yet serious, funny yet honest, the bounce between bottles takes readers on a stroll through everything. 

Dating. Religion. Politics. That one time J Edward and his friend built a dam and met the world’s most relaxed water moccasin…

 It’s all here.

One bottle per night.

Every night.

At least…that’s the idea.

Now Available!

   
* * *

Reality is Best Served with Red Wine

Anecdotes and philosophy by J Edward Neill

No One Is Safe

If a show sets up an expectation that anyone can die and then showcases a handful of characters… is it really being true to its core premise? To put it another way, at what point does your desire to see further main characters killed off interfere with story and enjoyment? When does worry as a viewer disappear? When is it replaced with apathy at what may come?

“I just don’t feel like any of the main characters are in real danger.”

Both a solid argument and a bit of strangeness all rolled into one. For we all have watched the serialized shows for the past twenty some odd years. And with their coming it means we are watching lives twist and change through each zombie apocalypse, vampire slayer, gangster talking to a shrink, plane crash survivors, high school teacher turned criminal mastermind… all of it. Through it all, whether we knew it or not, we were watching a show not only likely to get some characters killed off, but they might very well be people we enjoyed watching. It put us at the edge of our seats week in and week out.

Does that change as the shows go on longer? Assuming the writing quality doesn’t suffer from the weight of its own success, is the idea “Anyone can die” enough of an idea to ensure the ratings don’t suffer.

And if it does, what can the writers do to bring that… fear back to the viewing experience?

I read comics, a format where if you read the adventures of Batman or Spider-man then the one truth is pretty much universal – the hero isn’t going to die at the end of the issue (and for this argument I’d like to say that yes, some of these characters have “died” and they have come back – but you have decades worth of stories where they just go on and on). My point is that I don’t need the fear of death for my characters to enjoy a comic book. I just need the story to be compelling in some fashion or another.

I would think that in order to have a serialized show there has to be a consistent POV. And while many serialized shows have contained multiple POVs, I still must care somewhat about the characters. So a lot of times the whole idea of “No one is safe” is very artificial. Buffy killed off a potential main cast member in its pilot episode. Angel did the same about half-way through its first season. Lost killed off some characters you loved and let others you hated stick around for longer than they should have.

Odds were high, though, that Jack and Buffy and Angel and Walter were going to keep going for the majority of the show. And I would assume anyone who loved those shows wouldn’t want those particular characters to die without some huge (HUGE) reason behind it from a story perspective.

The two shows currently airing which try to walk this line (as far as the idea “anyone can die”… well almost anyone… well maybe just the supporting characters… and Sean Bean…”): Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

From what I’ve seen and read from both series (being a fan of the books and comics), I have to believe each contains a handful of “untouchables”… at least until the final season of each. There are certain characters I expect will continue to breathe life in their respective universes. GoT – Arya, Danny, and Tyrion seem the most likely. WD – Rick and Carl… with Carl actually being the absolute last survivor from our original group (my personal theory on how that story could/should possibly end).

The Walking Dead probably has the greater burden of the two, being in the post-apocalyptic world where, if we’re being honest about it, people are just fodder. A place where every day could and probably should be your last. Over the seasons they introduce new characters and kill off preexisting ones, but there has slowly become a “core” group who have managed to stick around from season 1 through the end of this last season. Is it a bad thing this has happened? Remember, we’re not watching an anthology where the characters only are on set for the episode or two. We need to build a connection with them (thus connecting us to the show itself).

Game of Thrones goes through episodes where no one dies, and then all of a sudden, everyone is gone. It also has the benefit of being much closer to a planned ending (only 13 episodes left total between this season and last). Things are coming to a head, which means those characters we’ve grown accustomed to watching may slowly drop away without us realizing it’s about to even happen.

So is unpredictability a good thing or the only thing?

I’m not sure if past a certain point it matters all that much. Most of the time, I’m willing to forgive a show some smaller things if they’ve delivered on their promises in the past.

So obviously I think everyone can die at any instance? No. Honestly, I assume most main characters are going to make it a little while longer. I don’t expect to Sansa die anytime soon… I don’t expect Michonne to kick the bucket this coming season. And that’s the thing… I don’t need to fear for their lives… not when I can still fear for their souls.

***

John McGuire

John McGuire is the author of the supernatural thriller The Dark That Follows, the steampunk comic The Gilded Age, and the novellas Theft & Therapy and There’s Something About Mac through the Amazon Kindle Worlds program.

His second novel, Hollow Empire, is now complete. The first episode is now FREE!

He also has a short story in the Beyond the Gate anthology, which is free on most platforms!

And has two shorts in the Machina Obscurum – A Collection of Small Shadows anthology! Check it out!

He can also be found at www.johnrmcguire.com.

That time I almost got murdered by an old guy in a Chevy

I’m nine years old, and life is pretty good.

For an early September day in the ‘burbs outside Chicago, the weather is stunning. The winds are milder than usual, and the great northern chill has yet to descend. My classmates and I adore it. A mob of us have just walked a few miles to school. We pour into the hallways just before opening bell. It’s a private school, and so the boys are dressed in matching gold shirts and dark pants, while the girls wear classic plaid skirts.

We look pretty slick, all things considered.

But…

The moment we pile into our classroom, we can tell something’s up. Miss Calvin’s late, and she’s never late. I hear people talking out in the hall. One of the voices comes from a man, a tall man. He’s wearing a police uniform.

That’s weird, I think.

After a few minutes, Miss Calvin and the policeman enter our room. No one asks us to settle down; we’re already quiet.

“Morning, kids,” the policeman says. He towers over Miss Calvin. He towers over everything.

“I’m from the JPD, the Joliet Police Department. Your principal and several of your parents have asked me to talk to you today.”

This is no big deal, I figure. We’ve had police visitors before. The message is always the same: don’t do drugs, don’t talk to strangers, look both ways when crossing the street.

I almost check out.

Almost.

“Kids, I’m here for a special reason today,” the officer continues. “You see, there’s been some trouble, and since so many of you walk to and from school, we think it’s important to have a little talk.”

At this point, the class is riveted. Even I, the class clown, am itching to hear what he’s about to say.

“Two children from the public school have gone missing.” He drops the bomb.

Gasps.

Open mouths.

Incomprehension.

“Both children were nine years old, and both were last seen approaching a late model Chevy Nova. It’s a smaller model, olive green. Other children have reported that the man driving this vehicle called the kids into his car while they walked home from school.

“And neither of the children has been seen since.”

He lets it sink in.

And then he goes on to explain that if any of us see a green Chevy Nova, we’re to get away as fast as possible. Most of us don’t know what a Nova looks like, but he describes it in detail:

“Small.”

“Sporty.”

“Loud engine.”

He also describes the alleged man inside the car. I’m only half listening anymore. Being a young kid, I’m sure this whole event will end up having nothing to do with me. I’m afflicted with the same sense of invulnerability most nine-year olds feel.

The only thing nagging me: the officer never tells us anything about the missing kids.

Not even their names.

The officer departs. The rest of the day is normal. We work on our multiplication tables. We play kickball. I manage to not get into any trouble. Everyone’s whispering about the man in the green Nova, but only for a while. Without knowing the missing children’s names, it’s hard for us to be afraid. The kidnappings are a thing that didn’t happen to us.

They happened to someone else.

We’re safe. Right?

A few days pass. Everything goes back to normal.

The weather stays nice. In fact, it’s perfect. We can’t remember the last time September stayed so warm, so sunny, and so ideal for walking to and from school. Late in the month, the same as every afternoon, I decide to walk home with my friends, Stephanie and Brenda.

We’ve walked this route hundreds of times.

Only…we’ve never walked it with a green Chevy Nova trailing us.

As we turn onto Lilac Lane, it’s Brenda who spots the car. Stephanie and I are too busy plotting out our afternoon’s mischief. We’d never have noticed a thing.

“You guys…” Brenda shakes us out of our daydreams. “Look.”

We glance to our left. There, just beyond a row of young oaks, gliding along the street at maybe five miles per hour, we see the ugly green car. We can’t believe it. It’s almost not real.

Brenda doesn’t wait for Stephanie and me to make up our minds. She bolts away from the road, skirt swishing as she vanishes between two houses. Within seconds, she’s gone.

Brenda’s pretty smart.

The car rolls closer. I’m trying to play it cool, as if my indifference can save me. Stephanie says something to me, but I tune her out. I think she’s shouting my name. It doesn’t matter. She takes off in the same direction as Brenda. Her house is the opposite way. I’m not worried for her. Everyone in our neighborhood knows everyone.

She’ll be fine, I figure. She’ll get home.

Still in disbelief, I finally give the ugly green car a good look. The man inside is older. He’s wearing a hat.

He looks exactly like the creeper the policeman warned us about.

I think I see him stop and start rolling down the passenger side window.

And I’m gone.

I’m a fast runner. Faster than Brenda and Stephanie. Faster than anyone in my class. In my neighborhood, among houses I know better than anyone, the old man has no chance of catching me. I’m gone in five seconds. I don’t even know which way I’m running. What’s important is that he’s gone, too.

You’re not stuffing me in your trunk, buddy, I think.

Not today. Not ever.

The next morning at school, we hear the announcement over our classroom speakers:

The man in the green Nova has been caught.

He’s in jail now, charged with several kidnappings. Not just the two kids from the public school. Several more.

The streets are safe again. Brenda, Stephanie, and I agree never to tell anyone about what happened.

But the thing that nags me for several weeks afterward:

No one ever says the names of the missing kids. I’m sure it’s mentioned on the news, but at our school, within our insulated bubble, no one ever speaks of it again.

It’s as if those kids never existed.

As if, because we didn’t know them, their lives weren’t as important as our own.

* * *

The story above is true.

Want more like it? Read Reality is Best Served with Red Wine.

J Edward Neill

Shadow of Forever – my last sci-fi book for a while

First, let’s get business out of the way.

I’ve just released Shadow of Forever. It’s the sequel to this, and my fourth sci-fi book overall.

You’ll find the Amanda Makepeace cover art below. Amanda has created more than half my book covers. She does great work, don’t you think? I’m glad our shared time in high school didn’t result in her hating me. I’d have lost a valuable friend and ally in my creative endeavors. 🙂

Click me to buy!

Shadow of Forever – available in ebook and softcover formats. Joff Armstrong and Callista return for their deadliest adventure yet. Think space vampires, star-killing machines, and galaxy-wide viruses…

*

Anyway…

I’m here to admit that while Shadow of Forever and its predecessor were challenging and rewarding to write, I’m moving on from science fiction for a bit.

Does that mean I’m going to stop writing books? Nope. Not even close. I’m currently working on a non-fiction story during which I’ll drink a different brand of wine while writing each chapter (yes, I’m serious!) It’s tentatively named Reality is Best Served with Red Wine. I’m also working on several short stories (they hurt less) and exploring Season Two of this, in which I’ll reunite with author John McGuire.

So…

Why the temporary withdrawal from sci-fi? Well…it’s complicated. I love, love, love penning stories about humans in deep space, cool scientific theories, and eldritch horrors lurking between the stars. But my challenge is…sci-fi just doesn’t sell as well as other genres. Even when one writes approachable-to-everyone sci-fi (as I do) the stigma remains. When many readers see the word ‘sci-fi’ they assume a male-dominated, violence-filled orgasm of spaceships mixed with bizarre scientific theories. That’s not really my gig, but many readers have been conditioned to think otherwise. It’s a hard mountain to climb.

Fact is, non-fiction and fantasy are where it’s at. Let me explain.  I can punch out 5-6 non-fiction titles in the same span of time as one full-length novel, meaning multiple mass-appeal entries into the market. And with fantasy (my favorite genre to write) the readership isn’t as narrow. Fantasy has so many nuanced sub-genres, so many plot and world-building options, the audience is easily ten times that of sci-fi and horror offerings.

Will there be a Shadow of Forever sequel, thus making a trilogy of the Eater of the Light series?

Quite possibly.

Will I complete a follow-up to A Door Never Dreamed Of, my wildest sci-fi tale yet?

Maybe.

But probably not for a year or two.

If I sound like I’m waffling, it’s because I am. My newest love, painting 3D canvasses in collaboration with other artists, takes up more and more of my time these days. I admit that relaxing on warm evenings with a paintbrush in one hand and a glass of pinot noir in the other makes for a pretty good life. It’s easier than writing, editing, and marketing books. It tends to satisfy my immediate need for peace and tranquility.

And yet…

The writing bug remains.

So stick with me, loyal readers. I’ve got thirty-two titles on the market, meaning I’m committed to this writing gig for pretty much forever :). As the years roll on and the words keep flowing, I’m planning to touch every major genre (except maybe romance and were-bear erotica.)

That’s a promise.

Give Shadow of Forever a shot. It’s my counterpunch to hyper-technical sci-fi.

And if you prefer quick & quiet quizzes (yeah…alliteration) just try this out.

Love,

J Edward Neill

A Deadly New Romance Novel – Fire and Mist

Fire and Mist, Book 3 of the Well of Souls series

Now available!

 

Derek Mackay, 16th century laird and Druid extraordinaire, is doubly cursed—with knowledge he isn’t supposed to have, and by a goddess whose wrath he didn’t mean to incur. The curse promises sure death to any betrothed of his, including the beautiful woman surrounded by Immortal magic who suddenly appears in his life and arouses in him a wellspring of bittersweet desire. The only way to save her is to stay away from her.

*

Erin Kelley is restless, craving the missing piece in an otherwise contented life. Romance. A man to take her breath away. A man to keep for life. A family to cherish with him. Swept back in time on a dare, she’s confronted by an angry Highland laird—an alpha male both irresistible and determined to keep her at arm’s length. His words push her away, but his emotions pull her in. Ordinary contentment will never again be enough—not when the world contains the extraordinary Laird Mackay.

Get it here!

* * *

 

Yes, it’s a romance, but it’s also about adapting to the curveballs life throws at us. Struggling to persevere against the odds. Becoming victorious in the end, despite the sorrows we’ve endured in getting there. Okay… and being able to shake our fists at the universe and yell, “You can’t break me,” because that’s a fun thing to do. I hope you enjoy the journey.

 

And if you haven’t read any of them yet, Immortal Desires, book 1 in the series, is on sale for .99 right now. Go grab your copy right here!

 

About the author:

Cerise Laudine loves sexy Highlanders, seductive alpha males from the Otherworld, and bold women who can bring them to their knees and rock their world. Time-travel, star-crossed, or interdimensional, her stories always have a happily ever after. Though the twisted path of laughter and tears is the real journey, isn’t it? Come walk the paths with her and share in the experience.

She also writes darker tales, using the twisted side of her brain, as River Fairchild.

Cerise’s Amazon page is here.

Trees and Towers 2017 Calendar

It’s never to late in the year to slap a calendar on your wall.

Especially when it’s full of art.

Introducing my new 2017 wall calendar – Trees and Towers. It’s a collection of sky-cracking towers and sylvan trees, each of which I painted in the comfort of my deep, dark dungeon. There’s something for every season in this colorful and melancholic calendar.

Check it:

January features my original piece – Ghost Tree.

Here’s all the images – January through December:

Snag my new calendar on Redbubble right here.

And look out for 2018’s Damsels of Darkness…

J Edward Neill

Just Remember Me When

Sometimes these things take time. And by the time I mean way too long to actually have passed before a story leaves your head and hits the page. And sometimes you can ensure a speedier process by just outlining and sitting butt in chair. But sometimes the finish line is so close that it completely eludes you. There is nothing to do but wait patiently while it all comes together.

That’s what happened yesterday. A couple of years worth of thinking about possibly, maybe we can, no we can’t, what’s it missing, what does it need? When will it be finished?

Yesterday Courtney and I released our second Veronica Mars Amazon Kindle Worlds Novella! You can find it right here!

Because much like Pringle’s, you can’t just write one story in the Veronica Mars universe and be completely satisfied. There are too many possible characters to write about. When our first novella came out, I wrote about it here. In that, the character of Max was not only the easiest choice, but it felt like no one else would immediately use her for their own stores. This time around if you are writing during season 1 or most of season 2, you can’t avoid the character of Duncan Kane. He’s Veronica’s on again/off again boyfriend. Yet, at times you really don’t know what’s going on in his head very much. To both of us that presented an opportunity to maybe see what makes this character work or not.

No biggie, just hanging out with the Ghost of my dead sister.

His parents are controlling. His sister was murdered (and for a while, it looked like he might have been the culprit). He is best friends with the guy is now dating his ex (and rooming with the guy).The reason this one took longer was that the core story came so easily. Duncan’s current girlfriend’s car has gone missing, and he can’t ask Veronica for help (because of the whole – she’s his ex).

There some complex stuff going on in there. Add to that the summer sessions between seasons make for decent fodder in the “I want to know what you did last summer” vibe.The reason this one took longer was that the core story came so easily. Duncan’s current girlfriend’s car has gone missing, and he can’t ask Veronica for help (because of the whole – she’s his ex).

That said, the reason this one took longer was that the core story came so easily. Which seems counter to how this whole thing should work.Duncan’s current girlfriend’s car has gone missing, and he can’t ask Veronica for help (because of the whole – she’s his ex).

“Duncan’s current girlfriend’s car has gone missing, and he can’t ask Veronica for help (because of the whole – she’s his ex).”

Pretty straight forward, right?

What happened was we wrote 90% of it and then couldn’t quite figure out what the missing 10% was. Some of it was massaging what we had, but some were to add in new scenes, try some different kinds of story-telling in the B story with his therapist sessions.

What we have now is something we’re both very happy with. I’m interested to see how it does in comparison with the first one.

An excerpt from the novella:

You’d think she’d care a little bit more about what happened, but the woman is unbreakable. It is always about appearances with her. And right now, she can’t go to any of the dinner parties without the looks of pity from everyone she knows. She can’t spin it, so the next best thing is to remove herself from the equation until enough time has passed that it doesn’t matter anymore. Some new scandal will reveal itself and things will return to her version of normal.

She tries to make it all about me, but truthfully, it’s all about her.

Her image.

Her social class.

Her life.

I can’t take it anymore. Sometimes it’s better to sit there and remain silent. And then there are the other times. “Don’t you think the justice system might look poorly on Dad leaving the country given the obstruction charges?”

Her look is a mixture of astonishment that I‘d even bring up her husband’s temporary incarceration, and her defense mechanism immediately deflects. “Don’t worry about that. That’s why we pay our lawyers the immense fees.” Then, without missing a beat. “Now go pack. I want to leave early in the morning.”

“No.”

“No?”

“No.” I’m sure it won’t matter. She never listens. “I’m staying. I have classes. Finals.”

“Didn’t you hear me; you can do all of that over the computer.”

“No.”

“Duncan. This isn’t a request. You will-“

“I’m tired of being handled. That’s all you do anymore. I’m not sure if it’s because you feel guilty about how Lilly didn’t follow in your footsteps or what? Do you think if you control every little thing I do then nothing bad can ever happen again?”

***

John McGuire

John McGuire is the author of the supernatural thriller The Dark That Follows, the steampunk comic The Gilded Age, and the novellas Theft & Therapy and There’s Something About Mac through the Amazon Kindle Worlds program.

His second novel, Hollow Empire, is now complete. The first episode is now FREE!

He also has a short story in the Beyond the Gate anthology, which is free on most platforms!

And has two shorts in the Machina Obscurum – A Collection of Small Shadows anthology! Check it out!

He can also be found at www.johnrmcguire.com.

 

How to react when hit with bad reviews

It’s no longer debatable.

Self-published authors are a force to be reckoned with in the publishing world.

As of June, 2017, more than 45% of all new published works are from non-Big Five, non-publishing house writers. And while a majority of readers’ money is still used to purchase traditionally-published works, indies  consume an ever-growing piece of the pie.

This is the world we live in. This is the new face of books, writing, and marketing.  Perhaps one day the pendulum will swing in another direction. Or…perhaps not.

The device that changed everything…

*

And yet, behind the scenes of the indie revolution, there’s a battle brewing. The most coveted resource of the modern writer isn’t always money, recognition, or even literary success.

It’s reviews.

Wander the social media accounts of most self-published writers, and you’ll find one thing in common: requests for reviews. New and established authors alike believe the key to getting noticed on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, and Smashwords is having reviews…and plenty of them. This is true for any product, but perhaps doubly so in the minds of the self-published. The perception, if not the reality, is that a pile of four and five-star reviews will earn authors more clicks, and thus more buys.

And while it’s a common theme amongst indies to state, “We’re not in competition with each other – we’re all allies here,” it’s simply not the case. Savvy and successful self-published writers know full well that all resources are limited, that readers aren’t in never-ending supply, and that while good reviews are little chunks of gold, not everyone cares to write them.

Trouble is; while in search of reviews, many authors are in the habit of shooting themselves in the foot.

Here’s just a few of the negative behaviors exhibited:

  • Authors spend more time appealing to readers’ willingness to review their books…rather than presenting appetizing stories, blurbs, and cover images
  • Authors chastise (either directly or indirectly) readers who either leave no reviews or less than favorable reviews
  • In frustration, authors publish full-length articles complaining about negative reviews
  • Authors post complaints directly to their social media accounts
  • And most grievously, authors forget their audience isn’t other writers, but readers

We all get it. We know marketing is typically the least enjoyable part of the self-publishing process. For a new (or even established) author to leap into the world of selling books is intimidating. Unfair reviewers do exist. Trolls are out there. Readers probably could help out and leave honest reviews more often than they do.

Guess what?

It doesn’t matter.

Authors new and old need to consider:

  • In self-publishing, just as in all other parts of life, no one really wants to hear complaints
  • The vast majority of people who read aren’t authors, and have no interest in the laundry list of issues self-published writers face
  • Time spent complaining online and publishing negative articles would be better spent creating, marketing, and practicing one’s writing craft
  • It doesn’t take much negativity to drive potential readers away – they’re here for the story, not a diatribe about the publishing industry

It’s almost understandable. It’s human nature to suffer frustration. The temptation to vent, complain, and commiserate is powerful.

But authors (and in fact, everyone) would do well to resist.

Truth is, a few negative reviews won’t sink a determined writer. Nor will a handful of bad reviews kill sales for a high-quality piece. If an author’s story is truly a work of art, chances are it’ll rise above the others regardless of a smattering of one-star pings. And it’s worth mentioning that authors who earn passionately negative reviews are probably authors who provoke feelings among their readership.

And that’s kind of the point.

Also…

Rather than take to the web in droves to protest negative reviews, authors would serve themselves (and their contemporaries) well to write more, write better, and to brush away the sting of readers’ disdain like so much dirt off their shoulders. The humble, self-aware author absorbs one-star hits privately. They’ll know every reader is different, that trolls and ill-intentioned people do exist, and that their book, while painstakingly created, probably isn’t a groundbreaking masterpiece beloved by every single reader in the world. Those kinds of books are rare. Most of us will write our whole lives and never create such a thing.

And so most of us will suffer bad reviews now and then.

And that’s ok.

So…

What should one do when a beloved story gets one-starred?

  • Consider whether the review has any valid points
  • If so, address them in your writing, not on Facebook
  • If not, shrug and move on with your life

You’ll be happier for it.

J Edward Neill

Author and Artist

 

Cover Art Reveal – Shadow of Forever

There once was a boy who took to the stars…

He sailed into the darkness…alone.

…and waged war against the horrors he found.

And now, he’s back.

***

Now available – the sequel to Darkness Between the Stars.

Shadow of Forever

Cover art by Amanda Makepeace

Shadow of Forever

Earth is no more.

Every human settlement in the galaxy has been destroyed.

…except one.

On a planet far from home, Joff Armstrong watches the stars and counts the years until the Eaters of the Light return. He knows it’s only a matter of time. He ended one of their worlds, but thousands more remain.

No one believes him.

No one understands the coming darkness.

And so, as humanity’s twilight nears, he will steal his way into the stars.

Alone.

One man against legions of star-killing undead.

Searching for a way to stop the darkness between the stars.

* * *

The complete novel is available here.

Book 1 – Darkness Between the Stars – is here.

Find more of Amanda Makepeace’s art right here.

J Edward Neill

Shadow of Forever – A preview

Ghosts

*

 “She’s getting what? To who?”

The rain thundered against my house’s glass walls. Rivers of water slid down the panes, blurring the greyest afternoon I’d ever seen. With her arms crossed, Callista floated above the table while wearing a too-big smile.

“You heard what I said.” She feigned a yawn. “Your sister’s getting married.”

I sucked in a deep breath and leaned back in my chair. I felt calmer at once. It wasn’t as if I’d spent much time with Aly in the last several years. Whom she married and why wasn’t any of my business.

“I guess I thought she’d never do it,” I said. “I mean…you know how Aly is. She’s a loner. She’s always working, always doing her science.”

Cal floated down and sat on the table’s edge. She looked absurdly beautiful, especially with the grey rain dimming the world beyond her.

“I don’t think it’s love.” She stretched out her legs. “Not that I really know what love is like. I got the impression, without cheating and reading her eyes, she’s marrying him for business’s sake.”

I retreated into thought.

I thought she’d marry the young man who used to bring her flowers. If anyone, it should’ve been him.

This can’t be for love.

After what happened to us, she doesn’t want children.

I guess it’s ok…

…if this is what she wants.

“They’re moving to Arcadia?” I asked Cal.

“Moving?” Cal shook her head. “Nope. They’ve already moved.”

“Am I invited?”

She smiled. “I am your invitation.”

I stood and walked to the window. I had to step over piles of clothes, eating containers, and a mound of soggy towels. I wasn’t much for cleaning up after myself. My only visitor ever was Cal.

And she doesn’t judge me.

“When?” I asked as I gazed into the rain.

“Seven weeks,” said Cal. “It’s going to be lavish, whatever that means.”

“It means I’ll have to shave,” I murmured.

“And maybe dress in something other than a twenty-year old tunic,” Cal added with a grin.

A gust of wind caught the rain beyond my window. The day was as dark as twilight, and the sheets of falling water moving as though alive. I lost myself for a moment. In the spaces between the rain, I imagined eyes. In a peal of thunder, I swore I heard voices.

“Maybe she’ll listen now.” My voice was almost a whisper.

“Listen? What do you mean?” Cal floated to the window.

“If she’s marrying him, she’ll be wife to the governor. She’ll have his ear when he makes policies. She’ll be…influential.”

“Joff, don’t—”

The thunder rolled, low and powerful. I touched the glass with my palm and imagined monstrous shapes moving in the rain. They weren’t there, not really.

And yet I see them.

“Don’t take it lightly,” I said. “If anyone can help make people believe, it’s Aly. She knows.”

“Everyone knows,” Cal argued. “It’s just—”

“They don’t understand,” I interrupted. “To them it’s just a story. It’s not real.”

Cal let out as long a sigh as a little blue nano-girl could. She knew exactly where my mind had wandered.

“The last time you tried to argue this with her, you two didn’t speak for a year,” she reminded me.

I know, I thought.

“And Aly, she’s the only person on this planet as stubborn as you,” Cal added.

I know that, too.

“So just how is it you’re going to change her mind? How, with nothing new to show her, will you convince her?”

I wish I knew.

“I have…information.” I pulled my mind out of the rain. “Two-thousand three-hundred thirteen more stars have gone missing since we talked. And it might be even more, but I’m only working with one orbital scope. No telling how many other stars they’ve destroyed.”

Lightning flared beyond the window. The rupture of cold white light burned shapes into my eyes. I caught myself shivering.

The Strigoi.

They’re out there.

They’re—

“Joff?” I heard Cal say my name. “Joff, are you listening?”

I blinked, and the shadows fled my mind. I was just Joff again, standing in my kitchen. The only light in the house came from Callista. There were no Strigoi, at least not out in the rain.

“Sorry.” I wiped the sweat from my forehead.

“As I was saying, it’s not just about Aly,” Cal continued; she must’ve been talking the entire time I’d stared into the rain. “You’re asking an entire planet to mobilize against something they’ve never seen. You want four-million people to leave their lives behind and go to war.”

“Their lives…” I mumbled. “You mean the ones they won’t have.”

Cal went silent. In part, it was because she knew I was right. The Strigoi, eaters of the light, were out there. We’d seen them butcher hundreds of people on the planet Ebes. We’d heard their voices echo in the void. And we’d killed them together, burning away one of their planets using the only thing that truly caused them pain.

Sunlight.

But Cal also went silent because she knew there was no point in arguing. We’d done the same dance several hundred times. I’d always tumble into a dark state of mind, and she always tried to pull me out.

By then, she knew better.

* * *

For the rest of Cal’s time at my house, I didn’t mention the Strigoi. I knew she hated it. All it ever accomplished was to put us both in foul moods.

So for her sake, I did my best to imagine a future without all the darkness. That afternoon, after I filled my belly with food, we took a walk in the rain. The worst of the storm had passed, and the warm drizzle felt as good as any shower. Even though I expected the wind and falling water to disrupt Cal’s nano-light, she fluttered through the storm with ease.

“How do you do it?” I asked her. We were tramping across a muddy field in the thick of the rain.

“I can survive in the vacuum of space.” She flitted between rain droplets as though dancing between swords. “I can turn myself into a stream of particles and travel down nearly any energized conduit. You think a little rain should bother me?”

“I just thought…well…” I stammered. “My dad used to say electricity and water were no friends of each other. And I found it out for myself one day. I used a powered wrench to fix a nut on a tractor’s coolant line. The line popped. So did the wrench.”

Cal laughed. She scattered herself into a few hundred-thousand nodes and then retook her perfect shape farther down the path. I’d seen her do it countless times before. It never ceased to amaze me.

“Now you’re just showing off,” I said. “You must be glad to have your old body back.”

“I am. But didn’t you just call me a wrench?” she laughed again.

“Yeah. I guess I did.”

Most nights, we’d have stopped walking at the green river. But that eve, just as the rain began to die, we crossed a narrow bridge and entered the fields beyond. I didn’t mind being soaked to my bones. It felt liberating, as if I’d washed away the morning’s darkness.

In the day’s last light, I looked across the fields. I saw the remnants of all the work I’d done to help the people who’d lived in the village near my home.

I saw the tops of the drain pipes we’d laid, exposed after years of heavy rain.

I glimpsed the lines we’d carved in the soil, the pattern of the farm that once had grown.

The crops were mostly gone, having long ago weeded over. It was the trouble with farming on Sumer. The rains were so heavy and the crops grew so quickly that within a decade all the nutrients were sapped out of the dirt. And without much animal life to provide natural fertilizer, most farms wore out their usefulness far swifter than they would’ve back on Earth.

“It gets old sometimes,” I said as Cal and I meandered along the riverbank.

“You mean being human?” she quipped.

“No. I mean thinking of everything like a farmer would. I can’t walk anywhere without thinking about soil densities, nitrogen levels, and drainage.”

“Uh oh.” Cal made a face. “Is this where you tell me another story about farm boy life? About tractors and griddlecakes.”

“No, I guess not,” I grumped.

“I’m only kidding.” She circled me and sat on my shoulder. “You can tell me any story. You know I like to hear them.”

“Nah. Not tonight.”

Together, we sat on the riverbank. The last of the rain died and the fog slithered away into the dark. I pulled off my boots and dipped my feet in the river. Back home, on an Earth that was no more, the water would’ve been frigid. But the little green river swirled around my ankles, warm and pleasant.

“You think Doctor Abid ever imagined us sitting here like this?” I kicked up a little plume of water.

“Oh. Him.” Cal made a sour face. She’d never forgiven her creator for sending us into space, alone and likely to die. “I don’t think he imagined anything for us…other than dying.”

“You know, by putting us in the Sabre and shipping us off to Ebes, he saved us,” I pointed out. “If we’d have stayed on Earth, if someone else had gone in our place, we’d be dead. Just like…you know…Mom and Dad. Just like everyone.”

“Does that mean you’re thankful?” Cal looked at me.

“No. I mean, not exactly.” I couldn’t think of the right words. “It’s not like he did it to help us. There’s no way he could’ve guessed what would happen.”

Cal offered a slender smirk. “Well then there’s your answer. He didn’t imagine us here. Not on Sumer. Not sitting by this river. Not alive. Not together.”

“You’re right.” I nodded. “I’m sorry. I’ll never bring him up again.”

She didn’t answer. But I knew she was happy to hear it.

* * * 

Later that night, as I roamed around the lower level of my house and clean up my messes, Cal drifted down the stairs and into the room. I worked by the light of three blue lamps, in whose light she floated and danced. Within one of the lamplights, she hovered longer than the others. The shadow she made on the pale wall was the same size as a person.

And for a moment I watched her.

Wishing.

When she left the light, her shadow vanished. She had a serious look in her eyes. She’d been upstairs for hours, no doubt plotting whatever she was about to say.

“Your sister’s getting married.” She flitted around me as I carried off a pile of clothes.

“Yeah. I heard.”

“She’s moving on with her life.” Cal ignored my sarcasm. “She’s making happiness for herself. She’s joining the rest of humanity.”

I dropped my clothes at the bottom of the stairs. There was no sense in avoiding Cal. She had something on her mind and she meant to share it.

“I know where you’re going with this,” I shambled back into the light.

“Well…” She crossed her arms. “I want to know what you’re going to do with your life. You’ve talked for years about dying early because of the Strigoi poisoning, but that hasn’t happened. Not even close. You have all these reasons for staying out here and being a hermit. And I…I just want to see you happy. This obsession of yours isn’t healthy. After Aly’s wedding, I think you should live in the city with me. We don’t have to move to Arcadia or anywhere fancy. But I think you should be with people again.”

“With people…” I murmured.

“Yes.” I could tell she was upset by the way the light in her body intensified. “Besides, I’ll have a body in a few months. A real one. It’s almost finished. I’ll be as human as you. Same voice. Same face. You don’t have to…you know…love me. But we should live close together. You should talk to other people. You should live a full life. I want it for you.”

I hadn’t expected her outburst, but I should have. For years, she’d dropped not-so-subtle hints about the hopes she had for my life. It was hard to see her so upset.

I stopped moving, stopped thinking, and gazed across the room at her.

“I like it out here. It’s peaceful,” I offered.

“No.” She shook her head. “You like it out here because you can walk in your field and stare at the sky all night. You like it because no one questions you or challenges you. You like it because you don’t have to be human. You get to pretend you died on Earth with everyone else. Well, guess what? You didn’t.”

I might’ve been angry.

But Callista was right.

*

 

* * *

Ghosts is the second chapter of upcoming science fiction novel, Shadow of Forever.

The first chapter is here.

Shadow of Forever is the sequel to sci-fi hit, Darkness Between the Stars.

It’ll be out in the first half of 2017.

Both books are by J Edward Neill

Both covers are by Amanda Makepeace.

The Murder of March 22nd Book Sale

With any luck, the day you’re reading this is Wednesday, March 22nd.

And with a bit more luck, you like to read books.

Now then…

As of today, I’m offering half my entire body of work for sale. That’s more than a dozen titles.

Several titles are knocked down to only $0.99.  Most titles are free.

That’s right. Free.

Why would I do such a thing? Easy. I want reviews. If you happen to download one of my books (or several) I hope you’ll take a few seconds to leave an honest review on Amazon. If you need help learning how to review, here’s my simple guide.

View all my on-sale books right here.

Or take a quick swim in these titles right here:

Hecatomb front cover hi rez101-deeper-darker-cover101-questions-for-humanity101-questions-for-midnight-front-cover101-questions-for-single-people-front444-questions-for-the-universeh-e-tesseranether-kingdom-createspace-bright-coverold-man-of-tessera ultimate-game-quiz-front-covermachina-obscurumthe-ultimate-quiz101 Questions for Men Front Cover

 **

J Edward Neill

Five ways I refuse to market my books

Everyone will agree.

The hardest part about self-publishing isn’t the writing. Long hours of hammering out words are inevitable no matter what avenue an author takes to launch their books into the market.

No…the true challenge lies in an author’s self-presentation to the world. It’s how a writer markets oneself. It’s the image they create, the test of their willingness to engage the rest of humanity.

To truly take the next career step, modern authors have to leap out of their comfort zone. That means shaping a presence on social media, talking to (sometimes unsavory) people, learning all kinds of software, and getting (and appearing) comfortable with all aspects of self-promotion.

That said, for this author, some things cross the line between palatable and icky.

And here’s my list of things I’m just not gonna do:

*

*

No Hashtags

Yes, I know they help people search you out on Twitter and Instagram. And yes, I realize it might help them find my art and books.

But…

I figure just as many (if not more) people will be so annoyed or disgusted by hashtags they’ll choose not to be interested in all things me.

Because really, hashtags are that obnoxious. Am I right?

*

*

*

*

No Review Swaps

Yeah, this is still a thing. People ask me for them all the time. “Hey J Edward, can you review my vampire porn novel and I’ll pretend to read your book about the two dudes who destroy entire cities when they fight?”

“No thanks.”

First of all, I don’t have the time. Second, Amazon cracks down on that kind of thing. And third, other authors don’t handle brutal honesty like I do.

I realize how many reviews this has cost me. And because of the value of reviews, I realize it’s cost me money. Doesn’t matter. I can’t bring myself to do it. Despite the thousands of high-quality self-published authors out there, many thousands more (the majority of the industry) don’t have the fire or commitment to pump out high-quality books.

Meaning more than likely I’d get stuck reading trash.

Nah.

*

*

No Paying to Enter Writing Contests

It’s my personal oath to never enter a writing contest requiring a payment. Writing contests in general are governed by arbitrary rules and judged in a questionable manner. More often than not, the organization holding the contest is more interested in turning a profit and/or getting their own name out there than they are in helping authors earn legit recognition.

Even some of the free-to-enter contests employ some pretty questionable tactics, though at least they’re free.

To other writers, I’d recommend doing some serious research before entering any contest you encounter on the net.

And to readers, I’d cast serious doubt on any author whose bio begins with the phrase, “Award winning…” It probably doesn’t mean what you think it does.

*

No ‘Best-Selling’ BS

If I had a nickel for every time I saw an author boast ‘best-selling’ credentials, I’d have…well…a lot of nickels.

It probably sounds elitist for me to say this (it’s definitely not intended that way) but some authors need to cut the crap. Showing up a few times in Amazon’s top authors lists or having a really big sales day doesn’t qualify as ‘best-selling.’ While it’s true the major literature publications (NY Times, USA Today, etc) aren’t the only people qualified to choose who’s best-selling and who’s not, there’s just too much exaggeration in the industry.

I’ve seen authors boast ‘best-selling’ in bios containing multiple grammatical errors.

I’ve seen authors with one published book and no published reviews declare themselves ‘best-selling.’

I’ve seen…never mind. You get the picture. Until I’m a household name with a fixed place in a steady market, I’ll be the last author alive to shout ‘I’m best-selling’ to the world.

Lies do not become us.

*

*

No Spam

There have been days when I’ve opened up Facebook and Twitter to the usual parade of politics, cat pictures, poorly-lit selfies, and cute babies. And there are other days when I open up my social media to find fifteen consecutive book ads…all posted by the same person.

Look, I love it when another person shares or reposts something of mine. It makes me oh so happy. But…it doesn’t mean instant and incessant reciprocation. Nobody on this earth cares to see an endless timeline of vampire were-hooker book ads in place of actual cool content. Actually, let me rephrase. I don’t want to see it. So I’m careful about what I share, meaning my stuff and my supporters’ stuff. The goal is to inform and entertain, not to drown.

Three Facebook book ads per week from me, max. And that includes sharing other authors’ work. As for Twitter, go nuts. No one reads retweets anyway. 🙂

*

More things I can’t bring myself to do:

 Post memes about writers’ problems (They’re all so bad.)

Demand reviews (Politely ask once, then move on with your life.)

Shave on a regular basis. (Sorry, this guy stays scruffy.)

*

Now you know all my weaknesses. Go forth and exploit them. 🙂

J Edward Neill

Painter of Shadows

Writer of books about star-destroying space vampires

 

Deep Dark Cover Art – The Hecatomb

Hecatomb – ‘heka’tom/ (noun) – An extensive loss of life for some cause.

or…

The name of my terrifying novella.

Now with all new cover art.

And yes…those are real bones…

Hecatomb front cover hi rez

In a drowned village, on a dark shore, in a city of white stones, an ancient evil stalks.
It has no name, no face, and no desire but to see the death of everything…
…and everyone.
Down through the ages it exists, sleepless and void, a relic from the world before humanity.
One dead. Every night. Forever.
Until nothing remains.

J Edward Neill

Tessera Guild at the Atlanta Sci-Fi and Fantasy Expo 2017 – March 11 and 12

Come meet the members of the Tessera Guild at the third annual Atlanta Sci-Fi and Fantasy Expo on March 11th and 12th, 2017.

North DeKalb Mall in Decatur, GA. Admission is free.

Robert Jeffrey IIJohn McGuire, and Egg Embry, along with Sir Leland Beauchamp, will host four panels over the two days:

 

I AM BlackSci-Fi.com
Saturday, March 11th from 3:00 to 3:50 EST

Hosted by Robert Jeffrey II as well as William Satterwhite

“Since its inception BlackSci-Fi.com’s goal has been to be “the premier site for the latest updates on Sci-Fi, Sci-Fact and Fantasy entertainment, news, people, places, and events and the measure of their impact on the African-American community, while also seeking to inform and inspire the imagination of individuals who aspire to live beyond the boundaries of everyday life”

Join Editor-in-Chief Robert Jeffrey II, and contributing writer William Satterwhite as they discuss the in’s and out’s of working for BlackSci-Fi.com, the websites goals and future plans, while touching on the general state of Black speculative fiction.”

 

You wrote something. Now what?
Saturday, March 11th from 5:00 to 5:50 EST

Hosted by Robert Jeffrey II as well as Bobby Nash and Milton Davis

“Join writers Bobby Nash, Milton Davis, and Robert Jeffrey as they discuss what happens after (or during) writing a book (novel, comic, short story, etc). Enjoy this insightful look into each writers path to becoming a published author followed by a Q&A session.”

 

John McGuire co-hosting: Freelance Writing and the 9 to 5

Freelance Writing and the 9 to 5
Sunday, March 12th from 3:00 to 3:50 EST

Hosted by John McGuire, Robert Jeffrey II as well as Nicole Kurtz, and William Satterwhite

“The Ups, the Downs, and Everything Between
By day, mild-mannered 9 to 5-er, but by night they create worlds! Join freelance writers as they discuss keeping a balance between the daily rigors of their 9-5s and writing careers.”

 

Sir Leland Beauchamp co-hosting: Dice, Kickstarter, Cash-in

Dice, Kickstarter, Cash-in
Sunday, March 12th from 12:00 to 12:50 EST

Hosted by Egg Embry and Sir Leland Beauchamp

“Role-play, write-up, and crowdfund your RPG adventures!
Have an original adventure, series of monsters, or tabletop game? Interested in crowdfunding its publication? Join Egg Embry and Leland Beauchamp for a a beginner’s guide to monetizing your tabletop RPG products. We’ll create a D&D creature to take through a hypothetical Kickstarter (idea to pitch to funding to production to delivery to what comes next).”

 

Egg Embry co-hosting: Dice, Kickstarter, Cash-in

For directions to North DeKalb Mall and this free convention, visit the ASFE website here.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Egg Embry, Wanna-lancer™

Wanna-lancer™ Checklist T-shirt available at Cafepress

Missed the show? Interested in being a wanna-lancer? Start with the official Wanna-lancer Checklist t-shirt or wall clock or ice tea glass!

 

 

* * *

 

 

Egg Embry wrote comic book short stories, edited comic book series, wrote and drew a webcomic, and contributed to comic book journalism across the 2000s. Now, he buys the opportunity to write for a variety of tabletop role-playing games in the tradition of vanity press. His purchases have been published by:

Ten Ridiculous Scenarios to Consider

 – Ten Ridiculous Scenarios –

In other words…

How many buttons will you push?



Money Button

Suppose you could push a button that would steal one dollar from every person in the world who has a bank account and deposit it into your account.

It’d be a totally untraceable transaction.

No one would ever know.

Well?

Push or no push?

*

Vampire Button

For every time you push this deep, dark crimson button, you’re guaranteed to add one year to your lifespan.

 However…

Each time you push it, two years of life are sucked from another person at random. This person can be anyone in the world. You might never know.

How many times will you push the button?

*

The Waistline Button

For each time you push it, this slim little button will carve five pounds of fat off your body permanently. The weight will come off whatever body area you desire.

Keep in mind you’ll never ever be able to gain this weight back.

Pressing it?

How many times?

*

The Button of Inches

This button will add 1 inch of height to you for every time you push it.

There are no negative side effects.

Would you push it?

How many times?

*

The Pink Slip Button

If you push this button, you’ll get a big promotion tomorrow. Your pay will be doubled. You’ll get a corner office, a sweet company car, and all the perks a top employee at your company could expect.

However…

The very next day, a random person at your company (other than you) will be fired with no chance of being rehired.

Push or no push?

*

Grey Button

Push this faded red button, and all the color will vanish from your life. Every sky will be grey. Apples will be pale and colorless. Leaves will be a washed-out shade of white. The world, as far as you see it, will forever be white, black, and various shades of grey.

But…

$250,000 cash (on a grey deposit statement, of course) will appear in your bank account.

Do you dare?

*

All or Nothing Button

 If you push this button, you will become the most famous person who ever lived.

You’ll be adored, worshipped, and loved by every single person on the planet. Because of this, you’ll have all the riches and luxury you desire, but you’ll also have no privacy and nearly no alone time. Ever. Your life will be scrutinized to no end.

If you don’t push this button, you’ll become a hermit. You’ll be alone, friendless, and without a lover. But you’ll have all the peace and quiet you want.

Push or no push?

*

Persuasion Button

There are no real drawbacks to this button.

…unless you abuse it.

Upon pushing, you will gain the power to persuade any one person in the world to take one single action.

You can only use it once.

You must know the person’s full name.

You must be very specific when determining the one action they must take.

Would you push?

If so, who’s doing what?

*

Bad, Bad Button

This shady little button is just begging you to push it.

If you do, you’ll learn every negative thing your closest friends and family have ever said about you.

Every time they’ve said something behind your back.

Every time they’ve secretly criticized you.

Everything bad. Ever.

Would you dare push such a button?

Or is it better to let some secrets remain unknown?

*

The Reality Warp Button

If you press it, all crime will end. No one on Earth will ever break any law. Governments will pass only peaceful, fair rules for every population to follow. No prisons will exist. No police will be needed.

However, lacking the urge to break any rules, everyone alive will have 75% less time for entertainment.

If you don’t push it, society will continue as it is.

Push?

Or don’t push and keep on truckin’?

*


*

*

Each of these ten questions (buttons) appears in my brand new book, Big Shiny Red Buttons – A Book of Ridiculous Scenarios.

You should check it out.

It has more than a hundred buttons for you to push…or not push.

Hasta la vista, baby.

J Edward Neill

Want to destroy the stars?

 Darkness Between the Stars

* * *

3,000 years from today, Earth is all but recognizable.
Stark cities made of black towers and white houses dot the planet. Tiny robots and powerful dream-inducing software keep humanity entertained. Nearly everything is automated.
But on one rural farm, a lone family lives a remarkably old-world lifestyle.
They harvest wheat. They repair their machines by hand. They drive the only combustible engine car left on Earth.
At night, the family’s youngest member of watches the stars and dreams of one day flying between them.
And when he sees them begin to disappear, he knows what will happen…

The beginning of the end.

Darkness Between the Stars

A science fiction journey by J Edward Neill

* * *

DarknessPaperbackFront

Consume me.

Review me.

Thank you,

J Edward Neill

The Skeleton Sculptor

Please enjoy my free short story, The Skeleton Sculptor.

…in its entirety.

The Skeleton Sculptor is one of four short stories appearing in the novella The Hecatomb, which can be purchased here.

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* * *

The Skeleton Sculptor

 J Edward Neill

*

On the morning the hunt began, we’d had a hundred men.

After three months, we were down to eleven.

We all knew how it would end.

But only a few got to see it.

My name is Costas. Those who knew me would’ve said I listened more than I talked. They’d have been right, of course. I was always a watcher more than a doer. I’d grown up in the Master’s service, in a mountain city graven of pale stone. In the Master’s Citadel, we had towers taller than anywhere else in the known world. We had women more beautiful than the sun, moon, and stars. Why talk, I thought, when surrounded by such glory?

And so I watched. And listened. And learned.

It was a perfect place, my home. I loved it.

And if I weren’t dead, I’d return there and never leave again.

* * *

Most of what I remember of our ninetieth night out was that my feet hurt. I sat beneath the full red moon, the campfire snapping at my toes, and I rubbed my soles until my fingers went numb.

For a short while, I didn’t care about all the men who’d gone missing.

I didn’t care about the Master’s orders.

All that mattered was that my sandals were off, my armor was loose on my shoulders, and my belly was full of stew. After all, there weren’t many of us left to eat the food we’d started with. There seemed no sense in dying hungry.

“It’s ten days home,” a soldier murmured across the dying campfire. “Which means if we leave tomorrow, one of us will survive.”

I looked at the other men. Five of us were hunkered in the scrub. We were sulking by the fire, our gazes inky in the night. The other six were asleep in two tents atop a nearby hill. I could see the lights of their fires dying the same as ours. The flames were red, just like the moon.

There was no wind that night. Only the scarlet light on the silent earth.

“So,” Aios grumped on the fire’s far side, “the one who makes it back home…he gets to die on the Master’s gallows ‘stead of out here in the grass.”

I listened while the argument began.

“We don’t know the others are dead,” Nikolas grunted. “Could be they’re hiding. Could be they’re lost in the hills somewhere.”

Nikolas wasn’t wrong, not exactly. We’d never actually found any of the bodies. But Aios knew better. So did I. Not that I said anything.

“As likely missing as swimming on the moon.” Aios glanced skyward. “They’re all dead and you know it.”

Philok, biggest of our cadre, rolled his massive shoulders. Tanned to gold by the sun, still packed into his hard leather hauberk, he was the only one of us who still looked fierce.

If any of us survive, I thought, it’ll be him.

“I want it to come,” Philok rumbled. “Let it skulk out of the darkness. I’ve a spear for it. There’ll be no more of our bones. Only its.”

It was wishful thinking, and we all knew it. Aios shook his head. Nikolas just looked afraid. Leuk peered over the fire, moonlight in his eyes, and went back to eating from his wooden bowl. He never talked, our Leuk. He was even quieter than me.

“Spears don’t kill ghosts,” murmured Aios.

“Mine might.” Philok glared.

Our huge friend had a point. His spear, a man and a half tall, leaned on a boulder near the fire. Its haft was as thick as most men’s forearms, its tip catching the moonlight just so. I’d seen Phi skewer a boar with it once. It’d split the poor, squealing thing in two.

But our quarry wasn’t a boar. It didn’t squeal. It didn’t die.

All it did was take the living away. And never bring them back.

The men argued more. They’d done the same every night for weeks. But by now no one bothered to get truly angry. We all figured if we started killing each other, it’d only make our quarry’s work easier.

Easy enough for the Ghoul already, I thought.

I rubbed my feet one last time and went to sleep.

 

* * *

It had started ages ago, this problem of ours.

It’d begun before I’d been born. Before the Master’s great-grandfather had been born.

Before any of us.

Back then, before the Citadel, before all the pale stone cities had sprung up along the coast, it had been a better world. At least, that’s the yarn our elders spun around the hearths at night. And so that’s the tale we believed.

A fine, quiet realm,’ they used to say. ‘Green pastures, hillocks teeming with olive trees, golden sun shining on endless vineyards.’

And no Ghoul.’

I’d never cared about the stories. Not as a boy, anyhow. In the Citadel, home of the Master, there’d never been any ghosts. The clap of hard sandals on marble streets had been our music, not the howls of mothers who’d lost their sons or or husbands whose wives had never come home. The stories we cared about had been of wars fought and won, of islands conquered, and of white-sand shores. We dreamed of golden coins in our pockets and raven beauties that would one day be ours if we served with honor in the Master’s guard.

We’d known nothing about the Ghoul.

And our lives had been better for it.

* * *

In the morning we woke to shouts again.

“It’s Saulos!” I heard Nikolas scream. “How? He slept in his armor! He’s gone, but his breastplate’s still here!”

“Where were you?” one of the hill-camp soldiers cursed another. “You were on watch! You were supposed to be guarding us!”

“I was on guard! I—”

Amid their shouts, I clawed away sleep’s last cobwebs and sat up beneath the dawning sun. It was hot already, and I was tired despite having slept so well. To defend against the Ghoul’s nightly visits, the others had taken to sleeping for only an hour or two at a time, if at all. Not me. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to be awake when death came for me, and so I’d almost always slept full nights…and weathered my nightmares alone.

I shambled up the hill. My sword pattered against my outer thigh, and the straps of my armor dangled without care. A year ago, I’d been a fresh recruit in the Master’s service, a newly-minted member of his honored guard.

And now what am I?

Dead.

I came to Saulos’ empty tent. It was just as the others had shouted. There lay his armor, all red leather and polished steel. Saulos had been a captain. His armor was better than ours, or at least prettier. It didn’t much matter. It lay on the ground, almost untouched. It looked like someone had snipped the straps off and carried him away while he was sleeping. There wasn’t even any blood.

As I stood there, the others fell into their ritual panic. Some muttered prayers. Others shouted that we should return to the Citadel at once. Both cries were familiar. Neither really mattered.

One of us alive is better than nothing!” cried a soldier whose name I hadn’t bothered to learn.

“The hell it is!” argued Aios. “You think the Master will understand when one man marches up and explains ninety-nine of his brothers are dead? He’ll smile, name the survivor a deserter, and hang his body over the cliffs for the gulls to laugh at.”

Aios was right. If there was one truly hard thing about life in the Citadel, it was the Master’s law. He didn’t suffer failure, not from his fabled soldiers. If our hundred never came home, it wouldn’t matter. He’d have a feast, sacrifice a few bulls, and send out two-hundred more men.

Though somehow I knew the result would be the same.

The men argued. It got vicious. Someone cursed the Master’s name. Someone else shoved Nikolas in the dirt. Philok shook his spear, and everyone finally fell silent.

I don’t know why I stopped watching and started talking.

Might’ve ended better had I not.

“There’s one place we haven’t looked,” I chimed in.

“Where? What place?” grunted Philok.

“The lighthouse. It’s only a day south.”

“Why there?” spat Aios. “It’s just one cripple in a rotten tower. He’s probably a hundred days dead. Besides, the lighthouse doesn’t work. Doesn’t need to. Ships don’t use that route anymore. They come up the river.”

“He’s right.” Nikolas stood and dusted off his armor. “We’re trying to help the villagers, not some lonely old cod stuck in a tower.”

They were right, of course. We’d not help anyone by marching down to the sea and visiting one old man in his tower. The lighthouse keeper didn’t even have a family. Never had, not that we knew of. Even if he was still alive, we’d not do the countryside any favors by rescuing him.

But that wasn’t my point. Maybe it should’ve been, but it wasn’t.

“Nikolas, you still have the map?” I blurted.

“Aye,” he said.

“Well. Fetch it.”

He did. In moments he marched down the hill and back up. The others stared at me like I’d just slapped the sun out of the sky. Wouldn’t have been the worst thing, considering how hot it was.

Nikolas brought me the map. It was big, the Master’s chart, and I unfurled it on the hillside while several others knelt beside me.

“There.” I pointed to a village by the sea. Veni, jewel of the south, sat on a beautiful beach right in the map’s center. It was a new city, paid for by the Master’s coin. We’d been there a month prior. None of us had wanted to leave. Until the villagers had made us.

“So it’s Veni. What about it?” said Aios.

I dragged my finger eastward along the map. I stopped at a nameless black ink-blot. It was the lighthouse. I tapped it twice.

“We’ve been to every other village, tower, and crumbling old fort along the sea. But not the lighthouse. Not there.”

No one could disagree with that. We’d marched to dozens of hamlets, fisherman’s wharves, and sad little huts along the coast. All of them had lost people over the years. By the dates they’d given us, we’d figured it out. One person had gone missing every night. Just one, never more, never fewer.

For hundreds of years.

And we’d only just now worked up the courage to try to stop it.

“The lighthouse,” I said, “it’s right in the middle of it all.”

I traced a circle with my finger. All the places that had lost people, all of them, lay within it. And in the circle’s center sat the lighthouse.

The men stared for several moments. I figured Aios would be the first to argue. He was, after all, the smartest of us. If anyone ever forgot it, he was always sure to remind them.

“Now just you wait.” Aios didn’t disappoint. “The Master knew about the lighthouse. He sent men last year to scour the old tower up and down. They didn’t find a thing.”

“Aye,” agreed Philok. “I remember. That’s what started this whole mess. While our soldiers were in the lighthouse, people were disappearing in cities three and four days away. That’s when the Master decided to start the hunt.”

I closed my eyes. I knew what I wanted to say, just not how to say it.

“What if the Ghoul doesn’t come home every night?” I finally exhaled.

“So it goes out on rounds?” Aios let out a morbid laugh.

“Maybe so,” I countered. “But it still has to have a lair, right? A place to retreat? What if it’s the lighthouse?”

“Nice theory, but after all these years the lighthouse would be stuffed with bones a thousand men high,” said Aios. “The Master’s men would’ve noticed, I think.”

“Or they’d have found the bodies along the way,” murmured Nikolas.

And they’ve never found any of the missing, I thought.

They’re right. I’m stupid to bring it up.

But wait. There was something else I wanted to say.

Maybe it’d been a dream. Maybe something else. If the morning hadn’t been so damnably hot, chances are my brain wouldn’t have cooked and I’d have never remembered it.

What was it I’d thought of?

Was it a nightmare I’d had?

A memory of my childhood?

“I think I was born out here,” I said.

“What?” Aios made a face.

Several of the other soldiers stood and left. I knew what they thought. They thought I was a fool wasting their time. I didn’t blame them. I heard them talk about fleeing home to the Citadel. They didn’t want anything to do with the map or hunting the Ghoul. They wanted to be home in their beds.

But Aios, Philok, Leuk, and Nikolas remained.

“I was born out here,” I continued. “Not in Veni. But close. It was near the sea. I remember my mother. I think I do, anyway. And I remember the rocks. And the lighthouse.”

“No you don’t,” spat Aios. “You were born in the Citadel, same as us. It’s just another of your dreams.”

“What if—” I started.

“I wasn’t born in the Citadel either.” Philok came to my rescue. “I’m from the mountains. My father was dying, so they brought me down to the Master’s fortress. My family figured I’d never have a life unless I served in the guard.”

Aios looked stunned. I nodded at Philok, grateful.

“I remember walking on the shore.” I stared off into the sky. “My mother sent me off to play while she worked. At least, I think she did. One day, I wandered near the lighthouse. I remember it. It was above me. Way above. And I remember seeing something in the cliffs beneath it. Was it holes? Breaks? Cracks in the rock?”

“Holes?” Aios shook his head.

“I think he means caves,” said Nikolas.

I looked at the three of them. They’d been my brothers for the last year. They knew I didn’t talk much, but when I did, I meant what I said.

“That’s right.” My eyes were wide. “Caves.”

It hadn’t been a dream.

I’d just remembered a part of my childhood.

And my mother, who’d I been made to forget.

* * *

Clouds gathered over the sea. Greys and blues smoldered in the sky, darker than the water. The hour was only late afternoon, yet the world looked ready for twilight.

We were terrified.

We’d every right to be.

The five of us mounted a last hill and caught sight of the distant lighthouse. It was an old, old thing, its stones bleached skeleton-white. It’d been built long before the Master’s time, long before any of us. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the Ghoul’s prey the lighthouse had watched vanish.

One every night.

Hundreds of years.

I couldn’t make the numbers work in my head.

We’d walked all day. Ever since we’d split up from the other soldiers, I hadn’t said a thing. Phi, Aios, Nikolas, and Leuk had decided to join me. The others had chosen to go back to the Citadel and face the Master’s wrath.

Our group hadn’t lost anyone last night.

And so we all knew what had happened.

“I hope it took Diok,” chuffed Aios as we walked down the hill and into the fields between us and the lighthouse. “Never liked that prick.”

Nikolas sighed, “Maybe it’ll follow them instead of us. That’ll give us what…three more days?”

“Maybe.” Philok’s knuckles were white around his spear. “But what if there’s more than one Ghoul?”

None of us had ever thought of that before.

We shivered the notion away and kept walking.

The five of us drew nearer the lighthouse. Switches of dry grass skirled at our waists, dancing wildly in the wind. My feet hurt again. My ankles, too. The grass had nicked me in a hundred little places. If the Ghoul didn’t kill me, I half-believed the fields might drown me.

At least it’s not hot anymore.

By the time we came to the cliff, upon which the lighthouse stood tall and formidable, the rain began. The wind hit us and the storm’s droplets beaded on our sunburned skin. I looked my companions over. To a man, we savored standing in the rain. It was an island of peace in a world of despair.

“Are we going in?” Nikolas nodded.

“The lighthouse?” Aios smirked. “Why should we? We know what’s in there. Nothing.”

“Might be wise to weather the storm in there,” Philok held his huge palm open to catch the rain.

Aios looked annoyed. But then again, he always did.

“Fine.”

I knocked at the lighthouse door. The oak plank must’ve been two-hundred years old. It felt soft as soap beneath my knuckles. I rapped it ten times before Philok pushed me aside and kicked the thing in. I’d hoped the old man would answer. But the moment Nikolas fired a torch and walked into the great round room beyond the door, we knew the lighthouse had gone untended for months.

“Think he died all alone in here? Somewhere up there near the top?” Aios’s voice echoed in the void.

“Maybe the Ghoul got him,” said Philok.

“Why would it bother?” Aios cracked. “Old man was damn near a hundred. Pointless to kill what’s already dead.”

Except the Ghoul doesn’t care, I almost said. He takes children. Pregnant women. Venerable old men.

And soldiers.

We used pieces of the broken door to light a fire. With it blazing, we peeled off our armor and hunkered down in the shadows. The rain shattered the world beyond the lighthouse walls, harder than anything I’d ever heard. It didn’t feel natural. Bitter breezes flew into the windows, and stray drops of water swirled into the room, stinging our shoulders. No matter where I sat, the rain found me. I finally settled on the spot farthest from the fire. Leuk, stoic and silent, shook his wet hair when he sat down beside me.

“Maybe you were right.” Aios smirked at me while cooking up a pot of stew. “This place is creepy. I hate it. That old man’s body is probably up those stairs. The Ghoul’s probably waitin’ for us.”

“How do you suppose we kill it? I mean really, really kill it,” asked Nikolas.

“The Ghoul?” Philok rubbed his forehead.

“No, the fucking rain,” quipped Aios. “Of course he means the Ghoul.”

Philok didn’t flinch. “This spear.” He flicked the blade of his man-and-a-half tall weapon. “Or Costas’ sword. Or Leuk’s daggers. Doesn’t matter. Everything dies.”

“Does it?” Nikolas looked afraid again. “It’s been a few hundred years, right? It should’ve been dead by now. What if it can’t die? What if it’s…forever?”

Philok thought about it for a moment, and then huffed. “There’s probably no such thing as the Ghoul. It’s probably a family of murderers. Might be they’ve passed down the family secret over the generations. Fathers teaching sons…hell…mothers teaching daughters. ‘Here’s how best to kill a man, lassie,’ they tell the little ones. ‘A drug in his wine to make him sleep, then a knife between his ribs. No one’ll be the wiser. Not even the Master.’”

No one laughed except Aios.

I might’ve known.

We set up a watch. I went first, else I’d never have woken for second shift. The rain raged as I tightened my armor and laid my sword atop my thighs. I probably should’ve been afraid. As it turned out, I’d little energy left for fear.

I didn’t remember falling asleep that eve. I suffered no dreams, no nightmares. One moment I was sitting beside the fire, the mist collecting on my shoulders.

And when I woke, Nikolas was gone.

The others were still dozing. It’d been Aios’s turn to watch, but he was curled up beside the long-dead fire, looking little different than a sleeping boy. Dawn’s first glow crept into the high windows. In a pool of soft light lay Nikolas’s armor, his blanket, and his bowl.

And his sword, still in its scabbard.

If I shout, it’ll go like it always does, I thought.

I’ll be quiet. 

I knelt beside the patch of stone Nikolas had slept on. He’d lain there for some time, it appeared. The mist had gathered all around him, but his blanket was dry. I touched the brittle fabric, and in the cold light examined it.

No blood.

Not torn.

Almost like he left willingly.

And then there was his armor. The straps were sliced clean through, the same as scissors through twine. Looking at the hunk of leather and steel, I wasn’t sure why we even bothered with armor anymore. The Ghoul wasn’t afraid of it.

The Ghoul wasn’t afraid of anything.

I looked at my hand. My knuckles were bloodless. I realized I was squeezing my sword.

For all the good our weapons do.

I woke Philok first. He came to with a jolt, seizing my throat in his massive hand.

“Phi—” I coughed.

He let go of me. As I knelt there gasping, something in my eyes gave the truth away.

“Who’s gone?” he rumbled.

“Niko.” I sagged.

“No blood? No one heard him?”

“Nothing.” I rubbed my neck. “It’s morning now. He’s only been missing for a little while.”

We woke the others. For once, there was no panic. Leuk said nothing. He looked stoic as ever, no different than if he’d slept in his bunk at the Citadel. Frowning, Aios kicked at Nikolas’s things and glared at the rest of us, but kept his curses beneath his breath. This was what it had come to. We were dying one by one, and we hardly even minded anymore.

After a time, Philok dropped a helmet on his head, shouldered his spear, and marched to the bottom of the stairs that led to the lighthouse’s top. The weathered stone stairwell twisted up through a gaping hole in the ceiling. No sunlight spilled down from above. The inky darkness of the lighthouse’s hollow heart oozed down onto Philok’s face.

“I’m going up there,” he grunted.

I expected an argument. But Aios plucked up Niko’s sword, unsheathed his own, and nodded at Philok with both blades in hand. “I’m coming with you,” he said.

Leuk and I had no other choice.

With Philok in front and Leuk in the rear, the four of us stalked up the stairs. We emerged into the void above the room we’d slept in, and we saw slender shafts of light carving pallid lines into the darkness. The windows on the lighthouse’s sides were shuttered. The climb to the tower top would be done mostly in shadow.

Step by step, we marched. The lighthouse felt a thousand steps high. The musty air filled our lungs, while plumes of dust from our footfalls floated the same as stars at midnight. We wound our way up through the cold emptiness, at last arriving at the door to the lighthouse’s top. None of us knew what to expect. I held my sword with no more confidence than when I’d first set foot in the Master’s training garden.

“If anything’s on the other side,” Phi whispered, “kill it. Don’t stop cutting until your blades are down to nubs.”

We all nodded. Aios cracked a wicked smirk. Philok shouldered the door with all his might, breaking the door to pieces.

The sunlight poured over us.

We invaded the lighthouse’s top room. We were an army, the four of us, a cloud of fear and steel. Philok roared when he went in, and Aios growled. Leuk and I didn’t make a sound, but we were ready. Our blades were as sharp as any in the world. And they should’ve been, for we’d never used them.

But there was nothing in the room.

No caretaker.

No bodies.

No sea of bones or carpet of skin.

Philok looked disappointed. Halting in the sunlight, he rapped the butt of his spear on the floor and glared at everything. As for me, I couldn’t help but be relieved. I let my sword sag and my shoulders droop. After all, the sunlight in the tower’s top was warm and soothing. It swam over me, gliding in from each of thirty windows, sparkling on the giant glass lens in the room’s center.

I figured it was the last time I’d ever feel warm.

No. I didn’t figure. I knew.

“It wasn’t ever up here,” cursed Aios. “We’re idiots.”

“We still had to check,” argued Philok.

“Yes…well.” Aios shook his head. “We checked. And nothing. So now what?”

“Costas’s caves,” said Philok.

I could tell Aios had expected Phi to say it. “No. Not yet,” he grumbled. “Breakfast first.”

Too soon, we abandoned the warmth of the lighthouse’s top. I felt sad to leave so quickly. Halfway down into the dark, I realized I’d never even taken the chance to look out across the sea.

At the bottom, Aios prepared breakfast for us. It was hard tack and fried cakes softened with hot water, same as most mornings. It didn’t much matter. Cooking had always calmed Aios, so we never complained.

With only a rotten beam of lighthouse timber to burn, Aios’ kindling of choice that morn was Nikolas’s satchel. Nikolas didn’t need it, after all. But just as Aios snared the leather bag and began cutting it to shreds with his knife, I stopped him.

“Wait,” I said, “Something’s in there.”

Aios made a face. “It’s just a book. Tear out the pages. It’ll save us from sending Leuk out to collect things to burn.”

“No…” I grabbed the bag and pulled the book out. “Just use the satchel. Let me keep this. I want to see what Niko wrote.”

Aios squeezed his eyes shut. He looked like he wanted to kill me. “Fine,” he muttered. “But remember; the dead can’t read.”

While Aios cooked and Philok rummaged through the rest of Niko’s things, I sat in a pool of sunlight and cracked the book open. It was well-made, a far finer thing than Nikolas had any right to possess. I couldn’t believe that with all my hours of watching, I’d never seen him with it. And then, when Philok grunted that he’d found a quill and a vial of ink, it hit me. I understood.

Nikolas had been keeping a journal.

The book has the Master’s mark on it.

Niko had always been a lazy soldier.

But he’d learned to write far sooner than the rest of us.

The rest of the world fell away, and soon it was just me and the journal. I read dozens of entries. Nikolas had done his work well. He’d catalogued how much food we’d had, our movements beyond the Citadel, the people we’d questioned, and the names and ranks of the soldiers that had vanished. He’d even written the dates they’d gone missing.

I skimmed across as much as I could. Most of it was trivial, but the deeper I read, the more I saw of Niko’s personal comments.

And the more I was filled with dread.

He’d written things like:

One soldier from Camp B gone in the night. Left his armor and sword. No blood. Same night: A man from Camp C swore he saw a shadow moving. The camps: an hour apart.

 Rained hard last eve. Saulos’s tent-mate was taken. Grigora says he found tracks in the mud. Not one set, but two. Not sandal prints. Bare feet.

 Another gone last night. Bibi – Captain, 1st Company. But Camp D, upon returning from the city, says that Veni lost someone that same eve. It’s always been one a night. But maybe this was more.

Does it mean two Ghouls?

 Occurred to me that we should look beyond our borders. Ask if others have vanished on the same dates. I know we can’t – they’re our enemies in the North and West, but still.

More than two Ghouls?

 Why is it hunting only soldiers now?

 Does it know we’re coming?

 Will it stop?

 

I closed the cover. I couldn’t read any more. Aios dropped a wooden bowl in my lap and snorted. “Boring read?” he chuffed. “Books are for scholars, Cos. Now give it over. We’ll use it to make a fire for tonight’s dinner.”

“No.” I pushed his hand away. “I’m going to finish it.”

“Finish it?”

“Yes. Reading it. And writing it.”

“Why? You’ll be dead soon.”

“I know, but—”

“Fine. Keep the damn thing. Whatever helps you die better.”

I ate in silence. I say silence even though Aios talked the entire time. He rambled about how our lives had become meaningless, how our deaths wouldn’t matter because we had no children, no lands, and no possessions beyond our weapons and armor. Maybe it was true. Maybe we were dead men no matter what we did. But when he said meaningless, it didn’t sit right with me. Whether the Ghoul killed us for sport or the Master hung us for being failures, it seemed wrong to just let it happen.

I have to make it meaningful, I thought.

The journal. I’ll finish it.

Maybe someone will find it.

After breakfast, a deep quiet overtook the four of us. There was no fleeing for the Citadel now, we knew. Unless the Ghoul abandoned his hunt, we’d all be dead within eight days. And so we sat there for a time, sharpening our swords needlessly. I like to think we dwelled on the purpose of our lives, the good things we’d seen, and all the glory we’d hoped for.

But I knew better.

Philok dreams of destroying the Ghoul. Of being heroic.

Aios dreams of how he’d have done it if he were the Master.

Leuk dreams of the life he wanted. Of what might’ve been had he finished his twenty years of service.

And what do I dream of?

Death.

And then it ended. Philok stood, spear in hand, and looked at us. We didn’t say anything to him. We gathered our swords, strapped on our armor, and doused the fire. In a short, ragged line, we trailed Phi out into the sunlight.

And for all the glamour of the great blue sky, we felt the shadow upon us.

We left the lighthouse and walked to the cliff’s edge. As the tower fell behind us, I looked over my shoulder at it. The edifice was white as death. Its sides were smooth and ashen, its outer walls seamless. The old thing looked like it had sprouted right out of the cliffs. I was glad to be rid of it. I don’t know why, but I promised myself I’d write about it in Niko’s journal.

“Costas.” Aios’ voice pulled me out my daydream. “Wake the hell up. We can’t get down from here. See?”

I gazed over the cliffs and onto the dark ocean. The water boiled over the shore far below, the waves black and foaming. I imagined if one of us fell over the edge, we could’ve counted to ten before we hit the rocks. Aios was right. From our vantage, there was no way to reach the shore.

Or the caves. 

“We’ll have to go—” I began.

“To Veni,” Philok grunted.

In hindsight, I should’ve suggested we find another way down. A quicker way.

But Veni it was.

We marched.

And marched.

And marched.

That eve, tired and sweating, we descended out of the cliffs. Veni lay before us, sprawling and fresh beneath the violet sunset. It wasn’t a big city, but it was still beautiful at twilight. Strands of hanging lamps lit its rooftops the same as the stars. The waves were too rough for sailing, but I could see the masts stark against the sky, and I could hear the people’s laughter. I envied them. But I knew as soon as we soldiers were gone, the Ghoul would go back to hunting at random.

Some from the countryside.

And some from Veni.

“We shouldn’t go in there,” I said to the others.

“Why not?” Aios stared at me.

“We’re bad luck. We’re hunted men. Veni knows us. Even if they don’t kick us out, we’ll not be welcome.”

“The Master’s soldiers can’t be refused,” Aios argued. “If they deny us, it’s under pain of death.”

I looked down at the dirt path leading into the city. Sandy scrub and lonely trees pocked the twilit way. The sky was cloudless; no rain threatened us. There were a thousand places we could camp if we liked.

“I just don’t think we should,” I said. “The city can’t protect us. No one can.”

Aios looked ready to split me in half. “Fine. We’ll stay the night out here,” he said. “In the sand. In the dirt. If the Ghoul comes, you’re first.”

I almost hoped so. Not because I wanted to die. But because I wanted to know.

Beneath the endless stars, we made our silent camp. No one from Veni noticed us. Or if they did, they didn’t care. I’d rarely seen a night sky so bright as that eve. A million white pinpricks in a perfect black sheet, it seemed. Leuk and I stared at it for a long, long while.

By the dying campfire, I wrote my first words in Niko’s journal:

We make for caves east of Veni. Four of us left: Costas, Philok, Leuk, and Aios.

 We don’t hope to find anything. We’re going anyway. If nothing’s there, it’s my (Costas’) fault. I convinced them to do this by a feeling in my gut.

 And there’s something else.

I think the lighthouse is made of bones.

I closed the journal. I needed to focus. We’d agreed to do a double watch: Leuk and I first, then Phi and Aios.

I worried I’d fall asleep.

But it was Aios who drifted off during his watch.

And Philok who went missing.

I woke with Aios’ boot in my ribs. It hurt. I squinted into the early sunlight and saw him standing over me. He scowled, Phi’s spear shaking in his grasp. He’s gone mad, I thought. He’s going to save the Ghoul some trouble and run me through. But he didn’t. He just glowered and spat in the sand.

“Get up,” he said.

I complied.

“The caves. Take us now. Let’s finish this.”

“But—”

“It’s fine if nothing’s there. I won’t blame you. I might kill you, but I won’t blame you.”

We didn’t eat breakfast. We didn’t mourn Philok. Walking ahead of Aios and his spear, Leuk and I led the way down to the shore. At the ocean, a lone child saw us marching. He stood in the foamy shallows, throwing rocks into the water. He smiled at us, watching us long enough to see us pass into the shadow of a stark and terrible cliff. I thought it strange to see the boy all alone. He reminded me of myself, of all the mornings I must’ve spent doing the same as he.

We walked into the shadows. And he was gone.

“I dreamed last night,” I said as I walked on the narrow strip of sand between the ocean and the cliff.

“No one cares,” answered Aios.

“I heard a woman laughing.” I ignored him. “She whispered something in my ear. She had dark hair. She was beautiful. I didn’t want to wake up, even with you kicking me.”

“A shame you’ll never meet her,” he mocked.

Maybe I will, I wanted to say.

We marched. Was it for many hours? Or much less? I couldn’t have said. The ocean crashed against the rocks and swirled at our knees, drowning out all the world’s sounds. Guarded by the mighty cliff, the sunlight never quite reached us. But the shadows and the cold couldn’t slow me. I slogged on, convinced I was going to my doom, certain I still had some part to play.

This is what madness feels like, I thought. All these years of not much talking, and now the loudest voice is in my head.

And then we came to it, a great dark hole in the cliff wall. The ocean roared in and out of it, and the rocks like teeth crowned its top and sides. Twenty men standing side-by-side could’ve marched into the cavern’s mouth.

And all of them would be eaten.

“Fucking lovely.” Aios marched past me. He still had Phi’s spear in his grasp, and he was wet up to his chest in seawater. The salt stuck to him, and us, in powdery white patches. We were miserable. We hadn’t eaten all day.

“Got a lantern?” he spat at Leuk. Leuk shook his head.

“Torches,” I murmured. “Just three.”

“We’ve got some daylight left.” Aios pointed Phi’s spear into the darkness. “Let’s go kill this thing. Just think…we’ll be heroes.”

I fired a torch, and in we went.

We were fifty steps deep when I realized what we’d gotten ourselves into. The ocean’s rush faded at our backs, and the absence of light swallowed us. I squinted in the dark and saw other tunnels, black branches trailing into the underworld. I remembered a story someone had once told me about such places, and why no one should ever go into them.

“Four different tunnels.” Aios saw them, too. “Wonder how deep they go.”

I wished Philok had still been alive. He’d have known which tunnel to choose.

“That one’s half underwater.” Aios nodded at the farthest tunnel. The black hole gazed back at us, smiling as if aware of our fear.

“So we’re going into this one.” Aios pointed his spear at the nearest cave. It sat above us, its archway crusted in ancient limestone. A pile of broken shells sat beneath its mouth, deposited by the sea. It was the narrowest of the four.

And the darkest.

Leuk and I didn’t argue. We clambered up the shells ahead of Aios. At the tunnel’s mouth, I held the torch into the darkness and saw that it went down. Way down. Aios climbed up beside me, snared the torch from my grasp, and smirked at me as he marched straight into the blackness. “Three men wide,” he laughed at us. “It’s perfect. Not scared, are you?”

We were, but it didn’t matter.

Down, down we went into the cave. I couldn’t believe any place in the world could be so dark. The ocean’s crash fell away to nothing. The only sounds were the torch’s snaps and our rotten boots squelching on the stone.

We walked for what felt like an hour. Then two. The tunnel never narrowed, never widened. The air tasted stale. White powder sloughed off the walls wherever we touched, and our boots left footprints in places no other men had ever been. I was sure night had fallen outside, but I’d have given anything to be back out there, to let the Ghoul steal me from sleep instead of moldering away after a long, slow walk to the world’s bottom.

Our first torch died. We lit another. Moments later, we slunk out of the tunnel and into an unthinkably vast grotto. It was truly massive, the cavern we’d found. Our torch felt like a candle in the great darkness. Far above, a lone shaft of moonlight cut through a hole in the ceiling and pooled in the grotto’s center.

“What is this place?” I whispered.

“A cave. Big as Veni.” Aios’ gaze was wide and black. “A giant, empty coffin.”

“No. Not empty,” I observed.

I’d seen caves before. In the mountains east of the Citadel, we’d walked through tunnels and grottos. They’d had growths in them, daggers of lime and ancient rock. There had been beauty in those caves, elegance in the way nature had carved them.

But the shapes in this cave were different.

They were sculptures.

Something had made them.

We didn’t say a word. We were too scared to talk, and too weary. Wandering out into the pool of moonlight, we gazed at the many hundreds of pale, ghostly statues standing on the grotto’s floor. They were graven of white stone, and in my heart I knew they were made of the same stuff as the lighthouse.

Bones.

Human bones.

Most of the statues were of people. We glimpsed beautiful maidens holding decanters. We saw smiling children, some holding hands and standing in great rings, others all alone. As we walked through the pale, silent gallery of thousands, we saw old men and venerable ladies, soldiers and wealthy lords, beggars, fishermen, and stoic hunters. The sculptures were beautiful in a way. Whoever, or whatever had carved them had a talent like no other.

Somewhere in the midst of it all, Leuk tapped me on the shoulder. I looked back and saw horror in his eyes.

“What is it?” I felt myself turn pale.

He pointed at a row of sculptures removed from the rest. I took Aios’ torch and forged into the dark. We came to it, the part of the cavern struck least by the moonlight, and we stood there with our mouths open.

“Monsters,” I exhaled.

“Demons,” we heard Aios whisper.

The sculptures in the shadows were not of men or maidens, children or village elders. They were of monsters, malevolent and skeletal, with talons in place of hands, pale knives instead of teeth, and faces made of nightmares. Some had horns. Others had tails. All of them had strange writing on their skin, words and sigils from a language none of us knew. But the true terror lay in their empty eye sockets, which were huge and full of evil.

As I stood there, breathing not at all, I believed in my heart these statues mimicked creatures that must have existed. “How else could they look so real?” I uttered without knowing it.

Aios pointed his spear at one of the horrific sculptures. He looked wild with fear, sweating and cursing beneath his breath.

“We have to destroy them,” he hissed.

“How?” I argued. “There’s thousands. Tens of thousands.”

“Fine. We have to find what made them. Find it and kill it.”

“What if…” I looked up at one of the horrors. “…what if these are what the Ghoul looks like?”

“All the more reason to kill it,” Aios growled.

I didn’t know where to start. My fingers went numb, and a chill crawled down my backbone. We stood there, the three of us, gazing into the grotto, stricken still with our terror.

It would’ve taken us hours to search the cave.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to look at all.

The first thing I heard was the patter of footsteps. Aios and Leuk heard it, too. Bare feet, I thought. But…small?

Aios waved his spear in the direction of the sound. He crouched, looking deadly and afraid. And then I saw it, a little boy darting between the sculptures. He was naked, pale as a fish, and faster than any child had a right to be. At ten paces, he climbed atop a sculpture and leapt from its head to another, smiling all the way.

I shouted. Leuk pulled his daggers out.

The boy. It’s him…the one throwing rocks on the beach, I thought.

We were too slow.

The boy leapt from atop the statue of a milkmaid. Aios spun, screamed, and jabbed with his spear. He missed. The boy landed on Aios’s head, and Aios started screaming. I don’t know what happened to me. As they struggled, I just stood there with my sword in one hand and the torch in the other. It was like I knew:

No matter what I do, we’re dead.

I never expected Leuk to be the brave one. Never. The boy clung to Aios’s head, clawing and snarling. As Aios squealed, Leuk stuck his dagger into the boy’s back. For a single breath I allowed myself to hope.

Leuk’s done it. I backed away. He’s saved us.

No.

Three times Leuk plunged his dagger between the boy’s ribs, and three times he drew it out. If the boy felt anything, I saw no sign. No blood oozed from Leuk’s steel. The boy’s skin opened up like dry, cracked parchment, but knitted itself closed within moments. I didn’t understand how such a thing was possible. Nothing the Citadel’s wise men had told us lived up to the truth.

With one of Leuk’s daggers still in its back, the boy-Ghoul leapt off Aios’ head. He looked up at us, still smiling, as Aios collapsed dead on the cavern floor. I saw no blood. I couldn’t conceive how so small a creature had killed one of the Master’s warriors. I was paralyzed. My sword felt as though it were made of paper. My blood felt like water in the last moments before a long winter’s freeze.

The boy-Ghoul dragged Aios into the shadows. Leuk stared at me, and then went after them. I swallowed so hard it wounded my throat. I knew what was about to happen. Somehow, someway, I knew. And when I heard a second set of bare feet pattering, and when Leuk cried out his last breath, I sank to the floor in a puddle of my own fear. Perhaps it was cowardice. I knew my sword wouldn’t matter.

So I didn’t even try.

Many thousands of breaths went in and out of me. I closed my eyes, and the world went dark. I don’t know whether I slept, but at some point I lifted my head from the floor and gazed into the darkness. The second torch had burned out, and so I fired another. It burned beside me as I sat there, a red whisper in the vast darkness.

There was but one thing left to do.

I opened Niko’s journal, dipped the quill into the last of his ink, and wrote:

There is more than one Ghoul. There may be dozens. Or hundreds.  

In a cave east of Veni, they hide.

They’ve been here for thousands of years, I believe.

They sculpt whatever they kill. Murder is their art.

They made the lighthouse.

They made the cliffs.

They took Aios and Leuk last night.

Tonight they’ll come for me.

 

The ink was almost gone. I only had a few strokes of Niko’s quill left. I don’t what made me do it, but I stood and walked to the most terrifying of the Ghoul’s demonic sculptures. I wasn’t as afraid anymore. I stuck the torch in the creature’s hand, held Niko’s journal before me, and started drawing the strange symbols and words graven into the sculpture’s skin. The words were old, old things. Maybe they were magic, if such a thing existed. I’d already shut the boy-Ghoul out of my mind, but for him to have survived Leuk’s knives meant something I’d never understand was at work.

I drew as many of the words and symbols as I could. When the ink ran out, I hunkered down and gazed into the dark. I left the book on my lap. I had the foolish hope someone would find it one day. The shaft of moonlight was far away, not enough to see by. I knew when my torch burned out, I’d die even if the Ghouls never came for me.

I didn’t have to wait long.

Within a hundred breaths, I heard their bare feet on the cavern’s cold floor. The boy came first. He was naked and ghostly pale. White powder, surely bone dust, coated his arms up to his elbows. His fingernails were crusted in dried blood. He’d been sculpting, I was sure.

My sword lay beside me. I didn’t bother to pick it up.

And then the second Ghoul came. I didn’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t her. Naked and beautiful, she walked into the yellow sphere of light made by my torch. Her hair was raven, her eyes pale blue lanterns. She wasn’t terrifying at all, at least not yet.

“I dreamed of you,” I said to her.

She didn’t flinch.

“Are all of these your work?” I regarded the thousands of sculpted dead.

She shook her head. Only some of them, she told me without words.

I sat, limp and sweating, and looked at them. The boy was her ward, her student, or maybe even her child. She tousled his hair, and a plume of bone powder drifted into the torchlight.

He’s the next in line, I thought.

She’s teaching him.

Just like another taught her.

Without moving any other part of my body, I extended my arm and set Niko’s journal into the nook between two sculptures’ feet. I left my sword where it lay. It occurred to me that I’d never once used it. Ever.

The Master would’ve stretched my neck just for that.

The boy-Ghoul started for me, but the woman held him back.

And then she showed me what she was.

With her fingers, she pried the flesh back from her cheeks. She tore like sackcloth; the sound alone made me sick. Next she peeled back the flesh from her arms and collarbone. She was one of them, one of the monsters so perfectly sculpted behind me. Her true fingers were boney claws, her real face a horror of white bone. She had no blood in her. She was all sinew and marrow, a skeleton wrapped in human skin.

I understood why none of the missing soldiers had cried out.

She’d probably never shown them the creature beneath her skin.

All they’d seen was a beautiful woman or a handsome little boy.

And when she killed me, it didn’t even hurt.

*

* * *

If you enjoyed The Skeleton Sculptor, consider reading The Hecatomb or leaving a review here.

Thank you,

J Edward Neill

Why you need to push Big Shiny Red Buttons – A Book of Ridiculous Scenarios

In Big Shiny Red Buttons, a variety of fun, serious, and absurd scenarios awaits you.

More than a hundred buttons are dying to be pushed. The only question is: will you push them?

Suppose something terrible will happen if you don’t? What if pushing a button would bring you great prosperity, but cause harm to someone else?

Every scenario is different. Some will make you laugh, while others will force you to think. Some are serious, and some flat out absurd.

So how many buttons will you push?

And how many lives will be changed if you push them?

Want to start pushing buttons right now? Go here!

Want a few samples? Scroll down!

***

Sample Buttons!


Sell your Soul Button

 Whenever pushed, this red (but flecked with gold) button deposits $1,000,000 into your bank account.

The only price: it also shaves three years off your lifespan every time you push it.

So…

Will you push it?

How many times?

*

The Combusti-Button

One tap of this big round button will destroy any one cultural phenomenon.

Completely.

Examples: memes, Facebook, hashtags, a specific music type, a specific slang word, a new fashion, et cetera.

You only get to use it once.

Wanna push it?

Whatcha gonna combust?

*

The Duplication Button

One press of this unassuming button can be a powerful thing.

If you use it, any one person in the world will adopt your moral code, your intellect, and your view of the world. They’ll still be themselves physically, but their mental state and beliefs will resemble yours.

You only get to push it once.

Will you?

If so, who’s your target?



Big Red Shiny Buttons – the most fun you’ll ever have in a book.

Enjoy!

J Edward Neill

Creator of Coffee Table Philosophy

Painter of Extreme Darkness