June 2017


“Think about it,” Jenkins said. “People hurt things that’re ugly and we have a soft spot for things that’re cute. Jellyfish, your usual kind, ain’t cute.”

“It’s still unnerving,” I replied. “Can they…can they see from those eyes?”

“They ain’t eyes,” said Jenkins. “Just look like it. They seem like they know what they’s doing, but it ain’t so. Just instinct.”

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Gerlich gasped into his oxygen mask as he switched out the depleted cylinder for a fresh one. The cool air flowing over his ragged lips had a calming effect, and within a few moments he was ready to continue his incantations.

“Are you sure you feel up to this?” the Aleayn buzzed. Gerlich nodded, and flipped the eyepiece that connected him to the Aleayn’s system down to cover his right eye.

The initial incantation was simple, an invocation of the spirits of the dead that were bound nearby. Muffled by his mask, Gerlich summoned those spirits in the form of luminescent wisps of spiritual energy that snaked and spiraled about his forearms as they rose from the ground. Anything of the lives they had once lived had long since faded away, leaving the spirits as little more than energies with no direction or purpose.

Next, the carefully carved conduit was set in the middle of the room, a human head hewn from living crystal. Gerlich began the incantation with one hand, and controlled the magnetic fields produced by the Aleayn with a control box gripped in the other.

“It’s not enough to infuse the energy into the object,” the Aleayn whispered. “You need to give it both new form and new function.”

“And that,” gasped Gerlich, “is the hard part.”

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They say that Smooty Pete was the luckiest, most inept pirate ever to sail from Jolly Port on King’s Island.

On his first voyage, he was stopped by a British warship. On his second voyage, his ship ran onto a reef. On his third, his ship sank. On his fourth, he was stopped by a British warship, ran onto a reef, and then sank his ship.

Yet every voyage he had a willing crew. Why?

It might have been the British captain who had a heart attack and died, leaving his entire crew and cargo in Smooty Pete’s hands. The treasure-bearing hulk that formed the reef was another point in his favor. The ship that sank was on the verge of mutiny, and the loyal survivors were given a bounty for their “valor.”

But on Smooty Pete’s final voyage, his luck ran out…and his legend began.

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Fallen Isle was so named because it had once been a series of sea arches, but the Great Storm of 1713 had blown away all but the sturdiest, leaving an arched sea stack that supported a few trees a quarter of a mile from the mainland across a deep and swift inlet of the Outer Banks.

People who bought the single house built upon it did so because of the privacy. The only access was by a steel ladder, installed in the 1910s and replaced every 40 years, and everything that came to the island had to be hauled up that ladder or with an old block and tackle. A freshwater lens bubbling from the continental shelf below yielded water to anyone willing to pump it.

The first owner of the island listed in land records, one John Smith, was known as “the old misanthrope” and had the home built after retiring from a prosperous career in dry goods and disinheriting his family. He personally interviewed interested buyers before his death, and local tradition held that the home had misanthropy written into its contract of sale and deed.

That continued, unbroken, through five owners and the summer of 2012, when the last one vanished.

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“Woman with Decapitated Wight”
Kopjie Van Der Eyck, 1537

This painting depicts an unknown woman with the decapitated head of an undead wight that she has killed, as well as the shortsword, held in her other hand, with which the horror was presumably dispatched. This falls into the category of “supernatural exterminator paintings” that flourished in the Amsterdam school ca. 1505-1587, though is is not nearly so well known as De Jong’s “Man with Necklace of Vampire Teeth” or Visser’s “Children with Speared Dire Rat.”

The subject of the painting is unknown, though research suggests it may be Anna Van Buren (fl. 1517-1541), who worked as a supernatural exterminator in Rotterdam. Van Buren was part of a subset of supernatural exterminators who were women; they were expected to deal with horrors that were notably female (like banshees) or male horrors that entered female spaces. There is an account from 1536 about a “wighte” that bedeveled the convent of St. Genevieve; whether this is the same, none can say.

It’s noteworthy that Anna Van Buren is wearing very practical, almost masculine, clothing–as befits the nature of her job. The short sword and decapitated head are believed to be props or replicas that were embellished by the artist; the wight in particular is clearly rendered by someone who has never seen one in real life.

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The thing grinned, showing teeth rend with decay and slobbering diseased luminescence about the forest floor. Everything that its foul fluids touched began to brown and curl in on itself. Its hundred of bloodshot eyes leered about the thing’s vaguely lupine carapace.

“I am the poisoned one, child, and it is my lot to end that which is living.” Its voice was thick with noisome phlegm but with a vaguely refined edge, as if it had learned to speak by observing a nobleman. “You would do well to step back lest you too are ended.”

“I am flattered that you care for my safety so, O poisoned one,” said Maria. She curtsied with an imaginary skirt.

A laugh like a death rattle in an envenomed throat. “Child, I care nothing for you or your safety.”

“And yet you warned me so kindly against approaching,” said Maria. “If I had stumbled across you unawares, I would surely have perished.”

“My poisons are indiscriminate, child.”

“Yes, but perhaps you are not.”

This seemed to give the beast a moment’s pause.

“You have warned others, have you not?” said Maria, taking a gamble. “Those who would listen, anyhow?”

“Indeed,” was the sad, phlegmatic reply. “But so few do.”

“I am listening, now,” Maria said, trying to hide the triumph in her voice even as her hand tightened around the blade behind her back. “Tell me of your pain.”

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“I scavenged the arms from other suits of TI-42 battle armor,” said Kial. The six arms whirled around her as she spoke, making it impossible to tell which were her true arms and which were empty armor shells. “There were plenty on the battlefield after the annihilation.”

“And then you were able to get the neural connections to work even without limbs in them?” said Amar. “Impressive. Which are your real arms?”

“They are all my real arms,” Kial snapped. “I only take off the suit for maintenance.”

“What about maintenance? What about fuel?” Amal pressed. “Even with a battlefield to scavenge, powered armor is resource-hungry, yours probably even moreso.

“I take what I can find. And I take what I can’t,” said Kial airily. “Now, if you leave me with everything I demand, you may go in peace.”

“And if not?”

In a flash, each of Kial’s six arms was armed, brandishing the collapsible MP-696 machine pistols that every TI-42 operator had carried for emergencies.

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