Hollow Empire – Free Chapter – Cassidy

Hollow Empire exists as this experiment between Jeremy and myself to see if we could build this medieval post-apocalyptic world together in a serialized format. And I think the set up of him choosing a pair of characters and me doing much the same worked really well. It is a story and characters I’d like to get back to soon. In fact, I have part of what could be Episode 9 completed (assuming my co-writer doesn’t drop another chapter before then.

But, in order to get in the right mind-frame, I need to go back and reread… so here’s my second chapter from Season 1 (and if you want to read the very first chapter featuring my other Point of View character, you can get that here):

 

Cassidy

 

 

 

What once had been two living, breathing men now swung in the soft breeze. Though this area along the road did not possess much foliage, the outlaws had chosen one of the larger oak trees with its thick branches to support the display. Stripped of clothing, the dead skin baked under an autumn sun. A trio of crows roosted on the two bodies and pecked at the exposed flesh. It would only be a matter of time before they picked the corpses clean.

Cassidy rode closer to the bodies, and the air turned sour with death and decay. His stomach seized and contracted, but he fought the urge to vomit. When he was within an arm’s length of the once-men, he shooed the black birds away. They had devoured three of the four eyes thus far, but it was not enough to obscure the men’s identities.

“Damnit.”

“Is it Hadrian?”

Isidora’s voice broke through the stench. Though her horse seemed to have reservations about being so close to the dead, Isidora trotted up alongside Cassidy and studied the deceased men’s faces.

Cassidy shook his head. “No, it was Darius. Didn’t realize he’d been put on this hunt as well.”

Isidora guided her steed over to the other swinging corpse. She reached out with her gloved hand and spun him around.

“Wasn’t this one of their men?”

Cassidy looked up. “Lichy, maybe?”

She continued to twirl him, the rope tightening with each revolution. “No sores, no blackness along the fingertips, and no bleeding gums. He’s clean.”

“You think he wore out his welcome? Though, I suppose finding anyone other than Hadrian is welcome news. Perhaps he’s managed to remain in their good graces.”

Turning back to his corpse, Cassidy rotated Darius one more time. Aside from the battle scars, and a few bruises, the man might have been in good shape, other than being deceased. As he pulled back from the body, he caught sight of the scar. The mark of an eye, no larger than the width of a finger, rested on the inside of Darius’s wrist.

“He has the Brand.”

She backed her horse away and twisted in the saddle to scan the hills around them. “A warning then.”

“For who?”

“Us. Our kind.”

“Lovely thought. And here I figured they didn’t make us in Tolem.”

“Obviously your ability to maintain a low profile could use some work.”

Cassidy ignored the comment and pulled a folded map from his pack. He marked their position with one finger and then traced the long black line, the King’s Road, with his other. Ahead, the line wove between the foothills before turning northward to skirt the mountains. A series of small scratchings along the road indicated the occasional village.

Isidora dropped down from her horse, took a few light steps away from the execution site, and squatted. Cassidy had observed her perform this bit of artistry more times than he could count. She studied the rocks, the dirt, and the very dust, nothing lost before her vision. He had watched her pick up the barest of markings after a rain. It was rumored that she might have been the finest tracker in all of Othis. They were wrong. She was better than they could imagine.

“We’re close now,” she told him. “Tracks no more than a day old and they lead east.”

“Old Welkwood is nearby. Maybe two or three miles ahead along the road.” He marked the sun’s progress in the sky. “We ride hard, we can make it prior to dusk.”

He nudged his steed forward on the road. Isidora remounted and flanked him. Then without a word, she put her heels into her mount and charged off ahead.

* * *

Cassidy looked down over the shell of a village. From their vantage point along a small rise in the ground, it stretched out in front of them. In its prime Welkwood might have been a proper town. The King’s Road cut through its center, lined with what would have been a blacksmith’s forge, a stable, a tavern, or any number of other businesses. Now those same positions were marked by decaying framework or the occasional stone wall. A large statue still stood in the center of town; though weeds and vines threatened to overtake it. He suspected it was one of Lord Rowan’s visages. At the statue, the road split and divided, and from that point, everything radiated outward along a pair of smaller roads. Four larger buildings, more stone than wood, flanked the midpoint.

He glanced at Isidora. “Looks as though those four are in the best condition. One might be an inn or larger tavern. Seems as good a spot as any for them to hole up in. Can you take a look?”

She nodded and closed her eyes. Each breath steadied into a rhythmic pattern. Her body swayed from side to side, threatening to tip over at a moment’s notice. Cassidy made no move to steady her; he did not dare interrupt her gift. Just below her neck, the faint, telltale glow of her Brand began. He looked at her face and saw her eyes rolled up into the back of her head, her eyelids flickering.

A survivor of the Lichy, she was one of the so-called lucky ones. When the madness of the times came, her parents left her on the doorsteps of the church. The priests and sisters found her; the dark heart of the disease clutched her to its breast. This frail little form, barely strong enough to lift her head for the soup they provided to her. She was given a day, no more than two, before she would expire. Yet on the following day, she could talk. On the second day, she stood without any assistance. By the time a week passed, she showed no signs of the plague, save for the small crescent scar on her lower neck.

Not one out of the hundreds who found themselves with the Lichy sores survived. Entire towns ceased to exist over the course of a few weeks. Yet this small girl survived, with only a mark to distinguish her from every other person, a lingering reminder that she was now the stronger breed.

It was only later she learned about the other aspect the disease left. She’d been blessed with the gift of second sight, or perhaps cursed with it. Cassidy never knew what she saw; she only gave him enough information to accomplish whatever task lay directly before them. Still, her foreknowledge saved his skin more times than he could count.

Isidora gasped for air beside him and rolled onto her side. Her body shook like a spastic ragdoll on the grass-patched dirt carpet. He instinctively reached out and placed his hand on her side to keep her from injuring herself while the shaking occurred. Her dark hair, usually shorn close to her head, had begun to grow out, a consequence of the hunt. He pressed a cloth to her forehead and blotted the beads of sweat. A small amount of blood leaked from her mouth.

Her tongue will be sore on the morrow.

He blotted her cheeks as well.

Soon the shaking subsided, though her eyes had not yet reopened. They still danced underneath their lids.

Cassidy never knew if his presence helped to bring her back to the present, but it made him feel better. Not that he would ever voice it to her, but in these moments after she used her gift, the intensity and the scowl, which normally accompanied her face, disappeared. In those moments, she seemed at peace with herself, with the world, and with him.

He pressed his canteen to her lips, and she drank as if it were the last drop in all of Othis.

He whispered, “Did you see how many there were? Do you know if Hadrian is still alive?”

Even with the water, her voice scratched and strained, “You need to go into their lair. You must confront them. It is the only way.”

“Very well, we will hold here until your strength has returned. Then when you are ready-”

“No, you don’t understand. You must do this. Only you… alone. I will have the horses ready for a swift ride back to the capital once it is done.” Her eyes pierced the darkness. “But you are to do this alone.”

* * *

The half-moon’s light illuminated the abandoned trail as Cassidy crept down to the outer structures of Old Welkwood. No potential sentries roamed this portion of the fallen town. At the bottom of the slope, he pressed himself against the broken stone wall and peered around its edge before sprinting along to the next barrier.

Now, in the middle of it, he saw the signs. Once it might have been a thriving burg, yet when the first infected showed up, many chose sanctuary in the larger cities. They hoped the abundance of doctors and apothecaries might spare them. Families left sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, and even children behind. They flooded to the largest churches and prayed to God to spare them, as if a change of scenery would have made any difference.

They were left wanting.

He turned his focus back on the ruined town. Everywhere he saw the marks of the Lichy, and suspected it had run through this place like wildfire. Mounds of ash and bone on the west side of the town marked the last remnants of the doomed, revealing how little time the citizens had to put the dead in the ground. Up close, he could see that the buildings were not simply abandoned or destroyed by the wind and rain, but put to the fire a long time ago. A choice made to head off the plague before it consumed them all.

Glancing back up the hill to their perch, he saw no sign of Isidora. He only hoped that he would have the opportunity to make his way back out to her. He trusted her gift, and the glimpses she saw of things to come.

Cassidy weaved through the buildings’ husks towards the town’s center. Charred and blackened frames surrounded the main street. A small church sat in ruin, the holy spire long since collapsed, spearing the remains of the structure below. Slowly, nature had begun to reclaim her land. Vines climbed and squeezed a few of the standing walls, threatening to pull each down to the earth.

At the very center of the town was the old Rowan statue. One arm outstretched in each direction, a symbol of the vastness of the empire Lord Rowan had amassed all those years ago. This one no longer had either of its limbs. The head was only a partial head, storms or vandals having ripped the missing pieces from it many years earlier. Here again, the vines and weeds worked their way upward, tying themselves into knots around the legs, up the torso, before finishing around his neck like the hangman’s noose. Flames from a small fire cast shadows up and down Rowan as it spat and seized, threatening to expire.

No one tending it.

He crouched behind the last of the stone remains and waited. To his left, he could hear the whinny of their horses. He counted to one hundred before he felt sure no sentries were patrolling.

No one is mad enough to enter this area, even if they didn’t know who was here.

Across from him stood the one building not in complete disrepair, and from his vantage point, he could see a soft light coming from inside the lower level. Cassidy darted across the street and positioned himself just outside the entrance. An ancient sign of a woodpecker drinking from a mug creaked in the wind above his head. Coming from inside the shell of a building, he heard grumbling and shouting. A quick glance showed him six… no, seven men.

He unslung the crossbow from his back and loaded a quarrel. Cassidy exhaled and swung the door open.

“I’m here for Hadrian.”

The entire crew halted their drinking, their card games. One fellow even paused his pissing in mid-stream. They all took a long look at him. One of them rubbed his eyes to make sure the man before them was not a drunken vision, which presented as a dirty, unkempt, and road-weary Cassidy before them. One of the card players pushed himself away from the table and stood, his skin tanned from many years on the road. His patchy beard matched his shaggy dark hair. A toothy grin escaped from his lips and he cocked his head from one side to the other doing his best to analyze the situation before him.

“And what business do you have with Hadrian?”

Cassidy held the loaded crossbow out in front of him so that all could see. “For crimes against the King, I have been authorized to bring him back to Othis to await judgment.”

“Is that so?” The man turned to look at his men and chuckled. They all joined in. “Well, I’m afraid that you will have to wait for your King’s business.”

“Do you have Hadrian or not?”

Another laugh, full of anger, erupted from the man. “I am in possession of Hadrian. Well, me and the boys in this room.”

“I have been charged to bring Hadrian back to Othis to stand trial. I have tracked him to you and yours. Will you turn him over to me?”

The man moved over towards the partially standing bar and snagged a canteen. He downed the contents in one swift drink, only a small amount of foam leaking at the edges. With a hand, he wiped his beard clean.

“Sadly that is not possible. Hadrian is also accused of crimes against me and mine. And I prefer him where he sits.”

He pointed to the back corner where a little man, who looked like he would have been more suited for scribe work, sat. The top of his head bore small nicks and cuts from where they would shave him. The clothes he wore looked four sizes too large for him, hanging from his body like loose skin. At the mention of his name, Hadrian looked up and Cassidy saw the weariness in his eyes. A defeated look, which said that he had no fight left in him. He would not run or attempt escape. Cassidy doubted he would get very far with the shackles around his legs and the manacles on his wrists.

“Perhaps when his flesh is flayed from his bones we shall let you collect. By what right do you have to take him?”

Cassidy reached under his cloak and revealed the metal disk pinned to his armor. Though faded, it remained easy enough to see the falcon wings crossed by a pair of lightning bolts. “By the law of this land-”

One of the card players shouted, “He’s a Walker.”

His tablemate joined in. “Didja not see the gift we made of the last one of yours who came here? Are you so eager to feel the rope burn your neck as well? Alric, it looks to be another hanging!”

“This place, Walker, this place is ours. Your kingdom no longer exists for the likes of us. We are a free people who want for nothing. We drink, we fight, and when we find women, we screw. We live by our own code here. That one,” their leader, Alric, pointed to Hadrian, “that one is a rodent of the worst kind. He possesses no honor, no code, and the limit of his depravity begins and ends when the coin stops flowing. So by what authority do you think to take that which is rightfully ours? For yours, in this room, is severely lacking.”

Cassidy studied the room. He did not miss the various movements of his opponents throughout the exchange, subtle as they attempted to be. Five feet in front of him, the two at the card table had relieved their blades from the sheaths at their feet. The pissing man in the back now stood near the other side of the bar, his hands below the crest. Two of the men he had first thought too drunk to stand held gnarled clubs in their hands, waiting on his right. The third drunk Cassidy had pegged correctly; his head had not risen from the table near the middle of the room.

Alric, for his part, leaned against the bar to Cassidy’s left, his anger replaced by calmness. He had made no move to secure a weapon. That worried Cassidy more than anything else he saw. Even on his best night, with no road weariness, he would not be able to take on the other five. He might fell three before he finally succumbed to their superior numbers.

The math did not add up.

I trust Isidora’s gift, my Lord. I place myself in your hands.

He turned his crossbow and leveled it at the man behind the bar. The bolt whistled through the air before it buried in his throat. Cassidy let the device slip from his grasp, replacing it with his sword. The two card players came at Cassidy and he darted between them, his sword parrying each of their first attacks with ease. Steel clashed with steel, the small fire casting a shadow of the combat onto the far wall.

He observed their techniques, which were rudimentary. They used brute strength and superior numbers more than any real tactics. He slowed his breathing, slowed his mind, and watched their movements.

Anticipate the next blow, move your enemy, make them strike where you are not.

Another blade imbedded in a nearby table, barely missing Cassidy’s sword arm. With his enemy exposed, he severed the bond between sword and man at the wrist. A scream followed, and the man crumpled to the ground, his hand dangling, held on by only bits of sinew and splintered bone.

A bolt slammed into Cassidy’s chest and he stumbled backwards. While the leather took the brunt of the impact, he would have a hell of a bruise on the morrow. Alric stood on the backside of the bar loading the next shot into the crossbow. When he raised it again, Cassidy reached out to the first card player and spun him around to act as a shield. The man’s eyes grew wide in conjunction with the sickening thud as Alric struck true, just late.

Cassidy’s instincts told him to roll to the ground. Sure enough, a gnarled club occupied the air where his head had been. He kicked out and the man’s knee buckled under the impact. Above him the other club-bearing beast of a man stood, his weapon ready to crack Cassidy’s skull.

The whistle of an arrow’s flight broke the silence and hit the man square in the chest. He took a step back, unsure where this new threat came from. Two more arrows embedded themselves in his stomach. He staggered, blood oozing from his lips, before toppling over, his strength no longer able to support his great form.

Cassidy sprung to a crouch and scanned the area before he spotted her at the rear of the room beside Hadrian. Isidora notched another arrow and let it fly at Alric. Again and again, she fired on his position never allowing him to gain an opportunity to respond. Cassidy sprinted to the back of the building, leaving the wounded and dead.

Isidora motioned to Hadrian. “Grab him and let’s be gone from this place. There is an entrance behind me. I’ll be right behind.”

Cassidy nodded and grunted as he lifted the prisoner and tossed him over his shoulder. Outside he found three horses: his, Isidora’s, and a third, stolen from the outlaws. He loaded Hadrian onto the back of the last one before he mounted his own. A moment later, Isidora rushed out of the building and vaulted onto the back of her horse.

The two of them shouted at the horses in unison, “Go!”

* * *

The three rode as hard as they dared under the moonlight for the next hour. It was only when heavy clouds began to obscure the orb’s radiance that they slowed the pace. Cassidy watched for any signs of pursuit.

“How far behind do you think?”

Isidora cocked her head to the side as if doing calculations in her head. “Hard to know. What survivors there are will have to locate their horses. I stole one and scattered the rest to the night.”

“Beautiful.”

She continued, “Most are injured or dead. My guess is that unless they have more we did not see, they won’t have the will to give chase.”

Cassidy nudged Hadrian. “How many are there?”

He coughed. “Water, please.”

Cassidy retrieved his canteen and held it just out of reach from his prisoner. “How many?”

“You don’t want to know the answer to that.”

Cassidy leaned in closer, so that he could look into the man’s eyes, “How many?”

“Fifty.”

 

***

John McGuire is the creator/author of the steampunk comic The Gilded Age. The Trade paperback collecting the first 4 issues is finally back from the printers! If you would like to purchase a copy, go here!

Want to read the first issue for free? Click here! Already read it and eager for more?

Click here to join John’s mailing list.

His other prose appears in The Dark That Follows, Hollow EmpireBeyond the Gate, and Machina Obscurum – A Collection of Small Shadows.

He can also be found at www.johnrmcguire.com

Hollow Empire – Free Chapter – Vadim

Hollow Empire exists as this experiment between Jeremy and myself to see if we could build this medieval post-apocalyptic world together in a serialized format. And I think the set up of him choosing a pair of characters and me doing much the same worked really well. It is a story and characters I’d like to get back to soon. In fact, I have part of what could be Episode 9 completed (assuming my co-writer doesn’t drop another chapter before then.

But, in order to get in the right mind-frame, I need to go back and reread… so here’s my first chapter from Season 1:

Vadim

 

 

The splintering door shattered Vadim’s peaceful sleep. A booming voice ripped through the early morning tranquility.

“You slept with my wife!”

His instincts took over, and he threw himself to the floor beside the bed in an effort to avoid the oncoming blow… that never came. Furniture exploded, a man roared again, and yet Vadim’s room lay seemingly undisturbed. Daring himself to peek at the carnage, he raised his head up so that his eyes were above the lip of the bed, just over the edge of the sheets.

And saw only his guest from the previous evening…

Hilda? Rayne?

She met his blue-eyed gaze, “Is there something amiss, milord?”

“I thought…,” Vadim caught a glimpse of himself in the full-length mirror along the wall beside him and observed his predicament; his manhood exposed and him cowering on the floor. No way for one of the King’s Men to behave. He stood up allowing his six-foot frame to come to its full height. It was not the nudity that brought awkwardness, but his stumbling and fumbling about on the floor. In fact, he never had any complaints about his appearance. The other Long Riders often teased him for his boyish grin, his bright, blue eyes, and his shaggy blonde hair. All of which resided on an untouched face, somehow free of any scars or wounds in his years journeying the Circuit. “This is rather embarrassing. I thought perhaps that which is happening next door was instead being visited upon the two of us. It’s not occurring in this room though, is it?”

“No, milord, it is not.” The freckled young woman stifled a giggle and ran her hands through her long blonde hair attempting to excise any tangles she found there. Vadim paused and stared into her deep green eyes trying to light a candle, which would be her name.

The wall behind the bed shuddered. Pieces of the ceiling flaked off and fell to the floor. Next door, a woman screamed.

Vadim searched for his trousers and found them tangled with his tunic and his consort’s skirt and blouse, all of it abandoned in a pile the night before. As he pulled up his trousers, he heard another crash, this time away from their shared wall. Then came more shouting from the hall and additional voices joined the chorus with the first.

Vadim glanced at… Sara? Trianna? and raised a finger. “One moment.”

Tightening his belt, he moved towards the door. Through the wood, he heard the shouting continue. There were calls for blood, pain, and then a slur of unmentionable deeds described by someone who must have been the original injured party. Vadim ran fingers through his blonde hair before gripping the handle. Preparing himself for the carnage, he took a deep breath.

When the door opened, he bore witness to sheer chaos. How the inn’s hallway could support the volume of patrons who watched, cheered, and shouted at the two combatants, he could not be sure. They crowded each end of the corridor, some stood just inside their open doorways, but all wanted to see these combatants duel. However, the word duel invoked images of two men squaring off in agreed-upon combat. This stank of something else entirely.

Vadim caught glimpses of the two men, flashes between arms and legs of the mob until he made himself a place in the crowd. It was only then that he could see the fight for what it was. Spittle erupted through the barrel chested man’s full black beard with each roar. A giant of a man, but not one someone might call attractive. His eyes appeared a bit too close to each other while his forehead seemed to slope until it gave way to a receding hairline. He appeared to have a full foot on his opponent giving him the reach advantage, but it seemed the smaller was adept at using his quickness to slip under the devastating blows. The two stumbled, the sea of bodies parted, and they crashed to the floor in front of Vadim.

“Jericho, how goes your morning? Rest well?” Vadim shouted above the din of the crowd hoping to catch his oldest friend’s attention.

Jericho looked up from his assailant. His red hair clung to the side of his face. Blood leaked from various cuts and lacerations on his head. In fact, red appeared to be the only thing that covered him.

Vadim smirked and shouted again. “Did you notice you don’t have any pants on?”

Jericho struggled to keep the large man’s blows from colliding with his body. “Perhaps you’d like to lend a bit of help?

His assailant bellowed, slamming a fist into the floor, just missing Jericho’s head, denting the wooden planks. “My wife!”

The two twisted and scrapped, each trying to gain some kind of advantage. Jericho managed to regain his feet and pushed away.

“He says you slept with his wife. Is that true?” Vadim asked the question through the din of noise, but did not give Jericho time to answer, “Tsk, tsk.”

A wild swing and another dodge.

“Vadim! I promise you, that was never my intention.”

“This gentleman would beg to differ on that point.”

“She never spoke anything of having a husband,” he spoke first to Vadim and then shouted it again at the large man, “I didn’t know!”

“It was our wedding night!”

Vadim whistled at the revelation, “Doesn’t seem like this man is all that eager to issue forgiveness. And even if he was, your explanation is not going to cover it.”

Jericho awaited the oncoming charge and slipped to the side under the brute’s undisciplined swings. The giant rammed into some of the crowd, toppling them in a mass of arms and legs.

“Even so, a little help?” Jericho screeched the last before sidestepping another missed blow.

Vadim nodded, “Right. Uhm… one moment.”

He turned back into his room and shut the door, muffling the roar slightly. He strode towards the partially dressed… Pia? Selene? woman sitting on the edge of the bed.

“Terrible thing, my mate is out there getting his head bashed in by a rather large, angry fellow. Something about sleeping with his wife. A pity. Still, it now falls to me to save the… wait; you’re not married, are you?”

She blushed and shook her head. “No, milord.”

“Right. Brilliant. Wouldn’t want to have a similar exchange as those two out there.”

Vadim scanned the room for the remainder of his belongings. Sunlight glinted off the small emerald gem sealed inside the pommel of his sword, which was resting in the corner alongside his pack.

He fastened the weapon around his waist before sliding his cuirass over his head. With one hand, he reached into his small pack and fetched a silver coin from a pouch within.

“You were a sheer delight, and I would love to spend another glorious evening with you when I return from the Long Ride in…,” his brain struggled with the length of time he would be away, “a few months’ time. If that would please you?”

A smile appeared as she blushed again. “Indeed, milord, it would.”

Vadim moved close and pulled her off the bed into him. Their lips met and she engaged his tongue with her own. His free hand explored her exposed right breast with one final squeeze before relinquishing its touch. He felt the familiar stirring in his trousers. He heard her moan softly and the bed creak as she lowered herself to engage him elsewhere. Yet it was what his ears did not pick up that troubled him. Only muffled sounds of the fracas filled the air to the point he could not be sure there was a fight left. He released his grip on her and slid back to the entrance to the room. A quick turn of the handle and an empty hallway greeted him.

“For your breakfast,” he turned and flipped the silver to her, “though I might wait until the festivities ran their course. Farewell…” Rachel? Miranda? “milady. Until I return!”

The hall was in disarray. The door to Jericho’s room hung lazily from one hinge. Shards of broken wood lay scattered, marking the path of destruction, a trail of crumbs leading him downstairs into the main area of the inn.

Vadim took the stairs two at a time. Jericho was the one man in the company he did not want to see injured. Of all the King’s Men Vadim had ridden with, Jericho was the only one who always had his back, whether it was when they were under fire from bandits or dealing with the strangeness of the infected. The man knew no fear, and never hesitated to rush in alongside Vadim. His other brothers never showed that kind of loyalty.

Now he hoped that he had not misjudged the threat his friend was under. As he made his way around the last corner, a mug exploded on the wall near him. Remnants of someone’s coffee leaked down the paneling. Those patrons from the second floor filled the dining area. They had pushed the tables and chairs up against the walls and out of the way. Their faces contorted in a frenzied desire to observe more pain.

“Kill ‘im!”

“Break his face!”

Each time Jericho tried to cut a path through the crowd they held fast and did not part. Instead, they tossed him back into the center. Vadim watched another tankard fly through the air, but this one found its mark and glanced off Jericho’s forehead. While not an incapacitating blow, it was enough to stagger the naked man. Jericho reached out to steady himself against a nearby spectator who shoved him down. Tree-like arms slipped around Jericho’s throat. It would take only one quick snap and the fight would be over.

The large man raged, “Most of you know me, but for those who do not, I am Otto Wilmot. My family has lived in Racein since before the Lichy. When everyone else fled to the larger cities, the Wilmots protected them and theirs. And when the plague had run its course, they helped rebuild with the rest of the survivors.

“Yesterday I married a woman before the town center. Under the statue of Rowan, we proclaimed our love as truth. The party which followed last night was a grand one indeed.”

The crowd bobbed their heads in agreement.

“And I must confess that both myself and my dutiful bride managed to imbibe much of the fine ale provided. I fear, in my drunken stupor, I failed to realize that my new wife did not return to my bed last night. She stumbled throughout this inn, clearly beyond her mind and this man… no, this wretch… he chose that moment to strike. He charmed her, brought her upstairs to his room, and defiled her!”

Jericho wheezed trying to explain but his captor tightened his grip.

“So I ask you, good folks of Racein, how do I answer this affront to the sanctity of my vows? Should I be content to extract my vengeance in bloodied knuckles and broken bones?”

Many in the crowd murmured amongst themselves. The early morning fog must have gripped them still, as they did not seem to understand the sermon’s purpose. Vadim understood all of it. Otto was not merely asking whether it was acceptable for him to kill Jericho, but asking the crowd to demand that satisfaction.

Vadim slipped through the throng, who had parted in an attempt to get a better look, and slid behind the combatants. Another stein, long since emptied, sat on the table beside him. He reached out and gripped the makeshift weapon. Otto continued,,, oblivious to the presence behind him.

“What say the lot of you? What judgment for this sinner?”

Vadim could see a few of the men did not care what the outcome was, but more of them were starting to realize the stakes presented to them. They might be a mindless lot, but they would never condone murder. But it only takes one…

From the rabble someone yelled, “Kill him! Teach a lesson to all the outsiders that our women are not their receptacles. We show them our hospitality and they abuse it for their own base needs.”

“Yeah!”

“Split his ‘ead open!”

Otto nodded. “Thank you, brothers. I am grateful you see the truth of the matter. If you deem it to be righteous and just I will act as your implement of destruction.”

Otto looked down at Jericho, whose face was tinted red as he groped and gasped for release. The enormous muscles flexed and seized around his neck.

“The Lichy may have spared your whore mother, and may have allowed you to enter this world, but I shall be the instrument that forces your exit. This insult will be met with righteous just-.”

Vadim brought down the large stein and shattered it on the back of Otto’s head. The blow was not enough to fell the giant man, but it did cause his grip to loosen. Jericho slipped out and crumpled to the floor, gasping for breath.

Vadim stepped out of the shadows, and pulled Jericho behind him. “This has gone on for long enough.”

The mob, for their part, did not know how to respond. They stood in shocked silence.

Otto did not possess that problem. He unleashed a guttural roar and spun around. In the same instant, Vadim released his sword from its sheath and placed it just under the man’s neck, freezing any further movement.

“My friend is sorry.”

Jericho had coughed his voice hoarse. “So very sorry. It was a misunderstanding.”

The giant rubbed the back of his head and took a step back. “You think you are going to stop me from exacting my vengeance?”

“Well, not only me, but this sword in my hand. Yes, I believe that changes the currency of this situation.”

“There is an entire room of men seeking justice here. Each willing to strike you down with a word from me. How is your sword going to stop them all?”

Vadim took a long look at the group still in the main room. Most of them had cleared out with the change of fortune, but he still counted eight, no nine including the lumbering hulk in front of him. Otto Wilmot might not understand what justice or consummating his wedding meant, but he was not so far wrong in his analysis of this situation.

Jericho’s legs were still a little wobbly, but he held a tankard as his weapon. The two of them, one naked, made for a laughable sight.

Perhaps, if we manage to escape with the better parts of ourselves intact, we could use this as great fodder for many a story in the future. For now, though…

“This sword does not need to stop all of them, only you. And do not doubt my word in that. You will be dead, gutted like a fish, before the first one of them reaches me. That is my promise to you.”

Traces of fear shifted through Otto’s features, but were gone just as quick. Vadim caught sight of it, and watched it vanish. His entire body steeled for the fight.

Emma! That was her name.

“Come on then.”

An ear-piercing whistle penetrated the room. Each and every man, including Otto, Vadim, and Jericho found himself wincing in pain.

“Hold!”

In the doorway of the inn stood the Watch Commander, his King’s armor glistening in the morning sunlight. His wiry frame doubled in size under its weight. The grays in his beard were the only thing that betrayed his apparent age. No one in the company knew his exact age, and none ever felt the need to ask. Around his neck, a bronze chain held the instrument that caused their mutual pain. He let the whistle slip from his lips.

“I believe that I must be witness to some kind of elaborate competition. For that is the only reason I could possibly see citizens squaring off against King’s Men.”

Vadim stared into Otto’s eyes. Even with the Commander’s appearance, he did not dare lower his weapon. The entire room held its breath, waiting to see which way the winds blew this day. When there was no immediate answer, the Commander spoke again.

“Mayhap the patrons are deafened by my device as well?”

Otto spoke through gritted teeth. “I demand justice from this one.” He pointed at Jericho. “He defiled my wife.”

“Is this true?”

Jericho opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and nodded.

“It appears you have taken the measure of this man through your fists. He is bloodied and he is beaten, what else must you have for your sense of justice to be satisfied?”

“His death,” said Otto.

“Tis treasonous to assault one of the King’s Men. The answer for such a crime is death. You have already committed one crime this day. Yet I am an understanding man and am willing to forget this event in its entirety. Make no more trouble and be content in the knowledge that this man is on his way to the Long Ride, and as such, you will not see him again for many moons.”

The Commander stepped closer to Otto, and Vadim thought it strange that even though the larger man stood at least a head taller, he seemed to shrink when he gazed into the Commander’s eyes.

“Do we have an accord?”

Otto forced the words reluctantly past his lips. “Aye.”

He then began to move towards the inn’s entrance, “Come on, lads. These King’s Men are needed to protect the land from all sorts. Let’s let them get to their business.

“Though, there will be a day between you and I, naked man.” Otto never took his eyes off Jericho until he was out the door. “Believe in that.”

After Otto and his gang were gone, the Watch Commander turned his gaze on the two of them. “All this… the two of you are going to be the death of me, you realize that don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” they spoke in unison.

“The squad is set to leave. Get your asses outside and on your horses.”

“Yes, sir.”

The Commander moved to leave, but paused and turned back to look at Jericho, shaking his head.

“And for God’s sake, put some clothes on!”

 

***

***

John McGuire is the creator/author of the steampunk comic The Gilded Age. The Trade paperback collecting the first 4 issues is finally back from the printers! If you would like to purchase a copy, go here!

Want to read the first issue for free? Click here! Already read it and eager for more?

Click here to join John’s mailing list.

His other prose appears in The Dark That Follows, Hollow EmpireBeyond the Gate, and Machina Obscurum – A Collection of Small Shadows.

He can also be found at www.johnrmcguire.com

Free Comic Book Day 2019 – Report

This past Saturday was Free Comic Book Day. Hopefully, you were able to get out of the house and snag a handful of the freebies your local comic stores were giving away.

A few things I realized for those people who aren’t aware of Free Comic Book Day – many people didn’t realize it was a nationwide event. More than one person responded over social media that they were bummed because they weren’t in the Atlanta area. After letting them know that their local comic store was probably participating, I’m hopeful some of them managed to get into a shop.

The other thing that I don’t think plenty of people realize is that just because Saturday is the day of the event, it doesn’t mean that it is the only day to potentially go and pick up free funny books. Plenty of shops order extra copies of some of the bigger books (the Marvel and DC probably leading the pack, but plenty of the more kid-focused ones as well). So even now that it is Wednesday (New Comic Book Day!), there is a decent chance they still have some of the Free books left over from the weekend. No reason that you can’t check it out (even a couple of days late).

As I posted last week, I was participating directly as one of the guests at Galactic Quest’s Buford, Georgia location.

It was a great time. When I arrived to set up around 8:30 AM, there was a line probably 30 people deep waiting to get into the shop when it opened at 9:00 AM. Once the clock rolled over, there was a steady progression of people coming into the building for the next 30 minutes (no let up from the line until that point). Medieval Times had a couple in costume who gave out free passes to those first five people in the line. While there were a handful of comic creators (yours truly included), Galactic Quest also has a gaming area where they had people ready to teach customers about the Final Fantasy Card Game. Next door, there was a live band playing.

The best part of the day is seeing the people who cosplay. I saw a Scarlet Witch and Winter Soldier. A mom and daughter dressed as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big (well, small) Bad Wolf. A little boy in a Miles Morales Spiderman costume along with his friend who was dressed in a Captain Marvel outfit.

For me, the day was a good one, although I must admit that I made a small(ish) mistake. Silly me thought that given it was Free Comic Book Day, that I should have plenty Gilded Age Graphic Novels ready to go. And while I did sell a few, what actually got the most looks were my two novels (The Dark That Follows and Hollow Empire). I only brought 2 copies of The Dark That Follows and they were gone by noon, while I had 5 copies of Hollow Empire to start (and ended with 1 copy left). I actually had to text Courtney to say “hey, if you are still coming by the shop, make sure to grab some copies of both books!” I probably only missed one potential sale by not having more copies with me (my fault, I thought there were more in my bag and didn’t verify).

There I am!

A good problem to have.

The other item I currently have on the table is the Gilded Age Coloring Book. It was one of the stretch goals from the Kickstarter and normally gets the response of “Wow, what a cool idea.” from people who notice it (not that they all buy it or anything, but it is a way to continue the conversation some times). I’m actually down to about two dozen copies and am now wondering if maybe I should invest in some new images for a Volume II…

Anyway, it was a great time and a great Saturday. And I even managed to snag a few comics for myself! Thanks again Galatic Quest!

***

John McGuire is the creator/author of the steampunk comic The Gilded Age. The Trade paperback collecting the first 4 issues is finally back from the printers! If you would like to purchase a copy, go here!

Want to read the first issue for free? Click here! Already read it and eager for more?

Click here to join John’s mailing list.

His other prose appears in The Dark That Follows, Hollow EmpireBeyond the Gate, and Machina Obscurum – A Collection of Small Shadows.

He can also be found at www.johnrmcguire.com

Deadly New Cover Art – Lys & the Heart Stopper

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 human alive – The Heart Stopper.

Nadya the Deathless – A new short story by J Edward Neill

Mother to a slain child…

Hunted for her power…

Some fear her…

Others adore her…

Those who know her best have named her…

Nadya the Deathless

Episode 8 in the Hollow Empire series

Now available on Amazon.

Fantasy & Sci Fi Spring Book Sale

Dark magic.

Evil sorcerers.

Fiery Witches

Ghoulish creatures.

Star-destroying vampires.

Get your spring reads right here. This week only (April 9th- April 12th) All titles are $0.99 or FREE.

 

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

Why Collaborate?

Every day that I keep at this – the writing, the editing, the story-telling – I’m hopefully getting a little better. But much like an athlete who trains by themselves, eventually they must turn to others in order to truly gauge how good they are, where their deficiencies might lie, and what things they can do to simply improve overall. They say you can never improve unless you are playing with people who are better than you are.

It’s not that much different on the writing side. Except that writing lends itself more to the solo aspect. You could go days or weeks or months without any feedback on the next project you’re writing. The only comfort you gain is knowing the story is progressing. That, too, can be just as maddening.

I think it is why I not only like to collaborate, but I seem to seek out such opportunities whenever I can.

During the earliest days of Terminus Media, when it was just a group of 5-6 guys trying to figure the whole “writing” thing out. Times where we might not even know what we did not know. Every week was a new potential project, every week was a new idea presented by someone at the table, and we did our best to foster that sharing. You could see where other people were having problems, and hopefully, not make the same mistakes on your own work (you inevitably did, of course).

I started to learn how to accept (constructive) criticism by sharing my words with others. I learned that the best way to learn was to DO the work. If there was a project that needed something written, the following week was spent figuring out how to actually write a short film script, or a TV script, or a comic script.

One week I had no idea and the next, knowledge replaced the nothingness.

Years later, Mr. Neill and I were talking about a serialized possibility. Here we both were trying to finish novels or start new ones, but there was something about getting our heads together and seeing what could happen.

Hollow Empire happened.

The biggest benefit, unseen by me (and probably cursed by Jeremy later) was editing. You effectively add a partner in this realm as well. Hopefully their strengths can fix your weaknesses and vice versa. Perhaps you are a little too sparse in your descriptions and your partner too sparse on the dialogue – now’s the perfect opportunity to learn from each other.

In those first drafts, which Jeremy edited to the bone, my prose got a little tighter. When I got new chapters in from him, it forced me to push to get better. I wanted him to be excited when my emails came rolling in. We all need to be pushed. Having a partner, someone you are accountable to, means that when you aren’t hitting your deadlines then you’re letting someone else down. Building the world through these characters in a way that makes the whole work really about those characters more than about the “Big Events” which may be going on around them.

Getting better with every keystroke.

In the last couple of years, I’ve worked with Robert Jeffrey on a pair of projects. Each of us bringing some ideas to the table and we settled on one idea from each list: The Crossing & Entropy.

The thing is that with another head there, you obviously have double the potential ideas. However, you are really forced to push your own ego aside… for the betterment of the story. When it is only you, it means a singular vision, but it also means you’re pretty much confined to whatever the old brain comes up with. With another person contributing ideas, you have more opportunities to find the best idea. You’re no longer insular… BUT you have to be willing to allow the other person to have that idea. If you are the type of writer who can’t deal with writing “someone else’s story” then you might as well stay a solo act.

To live in someone else’s world where much of the original idea was someone else’s, but you could still be a cog in the machine and help it get further than it could have done on their own. The ability to make something better than one person simply through the ideas being shared and passed back.

But the best part is being able to lean on someone else to help carry a bit of the workload. And when Writer’s Block threatens to show up, you simply give your co-writer a call or email. That way they can talk you off the ledge, getting you back to work all the sooner.

The dirty secret about all of this, whether it is short stories, novels, comics, film, or whatever… it doesn’t have to be such a lonely pursuit. You DON’T HAVE to go it alone. You can help your fellow creators, and they can help you as well.

Hopefully each learning a little bit more through the experience.

 

***

John McGuire

John McGuire is the author of the supernatural thriller The Dark That Follows, the steampunk comic The Gilded Age, and the novella 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.

The Agonizing Art of Writing Book Blurbs – Challenge Accepted

In the late moments of the day, when the wife and the cats have settled into sleep, I sometimes find myself struggling to come up with the next week’s blog (in between editing one novel and trying to finish up a novella at the moment).

Leave it to Mr. Neill to help a Guildmate out. He wrote a bunch of 1-sentence blurbs for each of his books, and then challenged anyone who happened to read his post to do the same for their own works. As this is a skill I certainly could use work on…

Well, Challenge Accepted…

The Dark That Follows by John R McGuire

 The Dark That Follows – A fortune teller comes to realize that his latest customer no longer has any future left.

HollowEmpireEP1

Hollow Empire – Twenty years after the Great Lichy Plague wiped out fifty percent of the population, the next generation struggles to find their way in this dark and desolate land.

BeyondtheGate

Beyond the Gate – A country surrounded by an oppressive Fog, where nightmares and monsters live, these are the stories of the Ruddermouths, the Sky Captains, and of the children of the festivals.

Machina Obscurum

Machina Obscurum – Dark tales of death, betrayal, and the end of all things.

VMars_SAM

There’s Something About Mac – When Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie’s younger biological sister goes missing, it is up to Mac to track down the missing teen.

PIECE-BY-PIECE-COVER

Piece by Piece – Jason Mill’s fortune reading becomes an exercise in the Butterfly Effect as he examines a myriad of possible futures for his latest client.

The Guilded Age

Gilded Age #1 – Hannah Lancaster leaps at the opportunity to help the Branning Troupe’s Stage Magician, only to discover that his latest trick might be played on her.

TGA02_cvrsPRESSb_Page_1

Gilded Age #2 – When you are known as the Fastest Gun, there will always be those who want to challenge for the crown.

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Tiger Style #1 – A kid with a Robin Hood complex discovers that he’s targeted the wrong “Rich” men, and these are willing to do anything in their power to reclaim a mystical artifact.

Terminus Team-up #2 – Amber Fox’s journey to the Gilded Age takes a detour through time as her companion seeks to understand how era’s end.

That definitely used a few different writing muscles. If you like any of these, click the pic and head to Amazon to pick up your copy today!

***

John McGuire

John McGuire is the author of the supernatural thriller The Dark That Follows, the steampunk comic The Gilded Age, and the novella 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.

Hollow Empire – Lessons Learned

My second novel-length project made its first real steps this past weekend. Hollow Empire’s first Episode came out on Friday night to a Kindle reader near you for a whole $0.99. For that you get to meet the characters, get immersed in the world, and get left on one heck of a cliffhanger for… another 2 days. Because that’s when Episode 2 comes out. And then a week later Episode 3 comes out. And so on for 6 straight weeks.

HollowEmpireEP1

Check it out on Amazon here!

Last month I talked about how the project began (in the various emails sent back and forth between Mr. Neill and myself). You can find that here.

The thing about this project was that while we had a bit of a road map, this was different than the way I normally write. Typically I’m working in solitude, late into the night, trying to hit my goals for the night. But even before that I have an outline of some sort set out. It might not have all the twists and turns laid out, but it gives me enough road signs that I know where I’m heading.

It’ll be months working on that 1st draft. A draft that no one else can see (not even Courtney). It is in this draft that I become unafraid to suck. Unafraid to write down everything that my brain might only be tangentially trying to tell me. It all goes in… because I know that when I sit down for Draft 2, I can easily cut the chaff from the wheat.

Or something.

Hollow Empire worked a little differently. Initially we set up goals of turning around the episodes every 3 weeks. At that point I’d send J my 3 chapters and he’d send me his 3 chapters and I’d spend a night or two on edits (and he’d do the same).

Let me say right now that J got the short end of that stick. Especially at the beginning. His chapters were pretty clean overall. A few grammar things, a misspelling or three, and maybe a tweak of some plot (mostly that was me asking questions like this: “Wow, this thing you introduced was cool, how does that work?”).

Editing

Mine were a little rougher. Mostly because, while I did give them a writer edit before sending them on, they were probably closer to 1st draft form than 2nd or 3rd draft form. I can only imagine what J thought when he read that first chapter.

Hopefully it wasn’t a “what have I gotten myself into” situation. 🙂

I believe that by the 5th and 6th episodes I’d cleaned up some of the bigger mistakes, crutches, etc. that I was using (or he’d given up by then).

I’m fairly new at this, but I have to believe that even the JK Rowlings and Steven Kings still learn things with each project they write. Maybe they aren’t the HUGE things anymore, but I have to hope that there are still techniques to figure out… an envelope to push.

And I’m still at the point where everything is HUGE realizations. Writing Hollow Empire, getting that instant feedback, and then doing the edits immediately showed me a different perspective on how my work… worked.

I wasn’t expecting that when I agreed to the project.

The other big thing I learned was that 3 weeks isn’t as long as you think when you have a day job. You see, I was under the assumption that since my nightly goal is 1250 words and our portion of each episode was about 7000 words… well, you do the math. That should be only 6 days. Figure 2 more for any edits. Even if I only write 5 days a week, that’s only half the time.

time slipping away

Well to mis-quote Top Gun: My brain was writing checks that my body couldn’t cash.

I hit the first deadline, no problem. Heck, I had a whole spreadsheet set up with due dates and how long edits would take and so on. By Episode 2 I only barely hit the date, and I’m pretty sure by Episode 3 I was a little late. And so on.

That being said, I would set up the same schedule the next time (3 weeks). Some of the delays were from not knowing the characters quite yet. Some of it was trying to  make sure that I hit the goal posts I’d set up in our initial story meeting. And some of it was vacations and work. At 3 weeks per episode we’d still be done in 4 months. Which leads me to the 3rd thing I learned.

The speed of the project made me a faster writer. More pure. I wrote my characters into corners in one episode and then had to figure out how in the world they were going to get out of that situation. And while that made for some longer nights than I would have liked, I’m hopeful that the end result of not agonizing over every last sentence captures a feeling with the readers.

What I’d like to know now is whether this experiment worked. How do the readers react to those moments and cliffhangers and everything else? Can we make it so they are hyped for a new episode to come out on Friday night?

I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

***

John McGuire

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

His second novel, Hollow Empire, is currently in week one of its 6-part release. Each episode is only $0.99.

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

 

Painting a Hollow Empire

You are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop, the Twilight Zone!

Okay. That might be an exaggeration, but you’re still about to see raw sketches and studies that until now only a few have been privy. Last November I met up with John R McGuire and J Edward Neill to discuss a project they were writing together, post-apocalypse fiction set in medieval times, aptly named Hollow Empire. This was to be a big project and it began like all projects do with a lot of brainstorming, sketches, and research. I read small portions from story, explored images of medieval town and cities, and began envisioning the world they had created. One aspect key to the cover was a city in partial ruins. Here are three sketches from the early stages, click through to see larger images.

From there we ended up going with the first sketch after we discussed the need for graves. Many graves.

Hollow Empire SketchI still like this sketch quite a lot, but as I began painting I realized it just didn’t work. Sometimes that happens. Thankfully, I felt comfortable enough to approach John and J Edward with my concerns. Before doing so, I began reworking the idea and incorporating elements from those early first designs. I also took inspiration from the medieval ghost town of Craco. If it looks familiar you’ve probably seen it in a film or documentary. Craco was abandoned after an earthquake in 1980, but it had already been on the decline due to poor agriculture, landslides and flooding. When I approached the author duo again, I presented them with two quick studies, the original idea and my Craco study.

Lucky for my muse and I, we were all on the same page. They too went for my Craco idea and I spent the next four weeks developing that world. One feature I was happy to see return was the gravestone from one of the original sketches. Sometimes things stick with you and for whatever reason I couldn’t shake that gravestone from my mind. This is the final painting without the extra bits.

Hollow Empire Painting by Amanda MakepeaceHollow Empire by John R McGuire and J Edward Neill will be available in the coming weeks! Subscribe to our blog in the sidebar to stay in the loop.

 amandamakepeace.com

Hollow Empire – Those Initial Steps

On March 23, 2013 I received the following email from J Edward Neill:

“My final round scooped. Weak. But seriously, if you want to try your hand at the serial story blog thing, I’m all in.”

The first part of that line refers to Magic the Gathering, so not really important to our discussion right now. The second refers to a conversation I had with J about a podcast I’d been listening to “The Self-Publishing Podcast” and how two of those guys had been on a tear with serialized fiction (which if you are at all interested in independent writing, you should check out the podcast). The format basically was about 15,000 words per episode (which equals about 60 pages), six episodes make a season (apparently we are on an English schedule)… leaving you with 90,000 words for the book (360 pages). They released them on a weekly basis, cliffhangers at the end of episodes (just like some of your favorite tv shows).

breakfast_serial_forum_183

No, not this kind of serial!

And I thought it could be duplicated.

So a couple of days later I got that email. And I replied on March 25, 2013:

“Serial – I’d be down.”

There was tons more included. Talk about potential schedules, the idea that this book could help not only cross-pollinate our works, but also generate content for our virtual book shelves. The one thing I am sure of in this writing thing is that if I only have one book, then it is much harder for anyone to find me. But if I have another book, I’ve increased my odds. And by co-writing it, I only have to do 1/2 as much work to get to the full novel.

Right?

Anyway. At that point we had no idea what this was going to be besides the barest of formats. Genre? Who knows. I only knew that we probably wanted to avoid vampires and zombies since they seemed to be running rampant throughout fiction and tv and movies.

J mentioned “a superhero theme, but waaaay back in time… fighting against ancient evils in a fantasy dark ages setting.”

I took that and wrote the following:

“125 years ago the last of the Great Wars were fought and the beginning of King XXX began. And the Age of Peace spread throughout the lands that he had conquered. Much like Alexander in our own world, this King spread his kingdom to the far reaches of the known world, but unlike Alexander, he lived to a ripe old age. Long enough to ensure that his heir would be ready to rule after him, long enough to make sure that the new lands remained within the kingdom. Trade increase, prosperity increased, etc.

10442Jollain_The_Plague_of_Frogs

20 years ago marked the beginning of the Outbreak in YYY. hey stacked the dead along the walls until they reached the top, and then they began a new corpse wall. The spread like wildfire throughout the world; the downside to having increased contact with the far reaches meant that no one could outrun it. The population of the world decreased over the next 10 years by 50%. Small villages now are ghost towns, empty of all life, as those who survived journeyed to the cities for protection, cure, help.

Now we deal with a medieval world which has begun to pull itself out of the apocalypse. They are trying to figure out where they stand. But there are peasant revolts, coups, kingdoms which quarantined themselves and have not been heard from in the last dozen years.

Plague_doctors'_beak_shaped_mask

<Insert Project Name> – Dark Fantasy – Not saving the world, not saving the day… just saving yourself.”

That’s all it took and we were off to the races. We began to flesh out the pieces of the world and the people who survived the end of the world. We came up with our four Points of View, each choosing to write two of them. We’d be each other’s first editor. And when it was done we’d have something greater than the one could possibly do.

I must admit, I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out. I’ve collaborated plenty on the comic book side of things. Heck, the whole format is about that very thing. Writers and artists working together to achieve something they could not have done alone. But this was something else.

And it worked (at least I think it did, you’ll have to read it and be the judge). I think we’ve not only managed to flesh out a world, but we’ve done it by using the characters as our vehicles to get there. They determine so much of what the world is going to look like.

The best part, though, was getting that new chapter from J. There would always be something new one of us would include in a chapter that the other one would want to add to their own story. So many emails and conversations seemed to begin with “X thing is cool… how exactly does it work so that I can use it.” Those surprises made it fresh in a way that working by yourself sometimes can’t be.

I’m excited to release this new creation into the world. I can’t wait to have people give it a read and let us know what they think.

And by the way, Mr. Neill also has given a little bit of teaser for Hollow Empire here.

***

John McGuire

John McGuire is the author of the supernatural thriller The Dark That Follows, the steampunk comic The Gilded Age, and the novella There’s Something About Mac through the Amazon Kindle Worlds program. He can also be found at www.johnrmcguire.com.

The Dark That Follows is now available in print here or on Amazon!