Neil would have you believe that he is a perfectly ordinary, mostly harmless person. But that’s what the imp in his head would like you to think.
“Where do you get your ideas from?” you will ask him. With the twisting of knobs, the pushing of buttons, the calibration of instruments, and the pull of a lever after a short folk rendition of “Sweet Child of Mine”, all of which happens in the fraction of the time it takes to blink, you will hear Neil say:
“Where everybody gets their ideas from: sentient poodles working 18-hour workdays in a sweatshop operating out of the underground level of a cotton factory in Algeria. They send me letters every Wednesday.”
You will write all of this down, drafting your article in your head. Neil will look at you and offer a kind smile. The imp will laugh, and laugh, and laugh…
He will tell you that he writes his stories one word at a time. He won’t be lying. He only tells the truth, and you will hear what you want to hear.
He writes with a quill, a feather plucked from the tail of a phoenix that once resided in the office of the Grand Archmage Durwin, who lived in a castle on the Isle of Man in the 14th century. The phoenix gave the quill to him after he helped her escape so she could be reunited with her love, the constellation Aquila. He watched her dive into the sky, tracing an orange trail through the obsidian sky, joining Aquila among the stars that were really leaves on the world tree.
The quill writes in words of fire, telling tales of dreams and death, stopping only to ask for apple juice. It writes the stories it remembers, of kings and saints and ghosts and gods and of the world, the real world, not this flimsy imitation of reality that is as solid and as permanent as a veil, half-transparent and fluttering in the wind.
Sometimes, Neil tells it to write something different. “Write me a story about a discontented housewife,” he tells it, or, “Give me a story about forgetting.” And the quill writes.
Neil has only ever written two stories by his own hand, when Morpheus required it of him. He won’t tell you which.
When he isn’t freeing forgotten kingdoms from tyrannical sorcerers or having tea with the seasons beside Ymir’s bones, Neil likes to sing. He also likes to cook, but the milk does that a lot better, so he mostly sings. He sings into the void these days, because his songs have a tendency of running off to live their own lives. One of them is now a famous Hollywood star.
Death visits him often. She hasn’t forgotten that he died ten years ago; but if she took him into heaven or hell, she would never know how the Marquis got his coat back. Every last Friday of the month, they meet for tea and biscuits. She is still eager to know how Loki made the gypsy witch cast the curse meant for him on her own son. He will have to figure that out soon.
His clones do his shows and book signings and shopping for him. In the unlikely event that he needs more time, he simply asks for more, and the eternal timekeeper steps aside for Neil to do what he needs to do. The eternal timekeeper only does it for Neil, and, if she asked, Mary Poppins. But Mary Poppins never asks. Time stops to ask her if she needs anything, something to drink, maybe. Neil has never met Mary Poppins, but Mary Poppins has met Neil. She sometimes sings about him.
Sometimes his words come back to him, after having seen the world and spoken the tongues of men and tasted their power, sweet and burning like wine; and they sometimes return with other words that they have gathered from the corners of the earth. They return to his head as white hair.
Woe to you if you are one of those who would hurt or lie to lure children to their deaths. Woe to you if you would squash the imaginations of children and take away their right to read, to daydream, to ask questions, to be children. Woe to you, because his words will find you, and they will bring you back to him.
In his hands the holds the book that once belonged to Fate. You do not want to know how he will write the continuation of your story.
When you look into his eyes, and instead of an impish mischief, you find there waiting for you a fury that hell cannot contain… Pray, oh pray, to your gods – to Mary Poppins, if she would hear you – that the ending of your story involves a sweatshop operating out of the underground level of a cotton factory in Algeria. Pray that your eternity involves writing letters to be sent off on Wednesdays. Ask him; ask him if he knows of the things you have done in the dark; if he would really do all the things I have said he would do.
He will open his mouth and tell you the truth. And you will hear what you want to hear.