June 2017

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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Inevitably, on each new world, I look up at the stars overhead, spinning through the cosmos. I see the galaxy in whose arm I rest, and I am ever struck by its beauty.

And, just as inevitably, its emptiness.

For this is my personal galaxy, mine to do with as I see fit. Forever mine, but also forever empty.

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And people say we’re not fun anymore!

Let me tell you, though: remember those days everyone’s always on about, the halcyon time when carnivals and circuses and funhouses were clean and innocent and honest? It was never that way. That’s the rose-colored glasses talking.

And, while I’m at it, I should add that the twisted and screamy dark nightmare carnivals, circuses, and funhouses are exactly the opposite. Looking back–or is it forward?–with nightshade-colored glasses, seeing horror everywhere. It was never like that either, movies aside.

It was always both.

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“You mustn’t heed him,” said the crow. “His kind have a dour streak to them.”

“You know all too well of what I speak, corvid,” hissed the vulture. “You have taken of the dead just as I, I who have seen and feasted on death since my parents first bore it to me in the nest.”

“So what would you say, then?” I asked both birds.

“The world is cruel and there is no reason to it,” said the vulture. “I have seen the deserving young cut low, the revered aged slaughtered, and feasted on the eyes of those who wished only good for others and the world. Indifference is the way of our world, and indifference I cannot but share.”

“And you?” I asked the crow.

“Who cares?” it replied. “Stuff happens and there’s no reason to read anything into it. Sure, I’ll eat the dead if they’ll go to waste. But I’ll also eat a berry, and that doesn’t say anything about the world other than it’s juicy. Trying to read a philosophy out of what happens is like shouting at a rock. It might make you feel better, but the rock will do what it does and you only hurt yourself by worrying about it.”

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The Kru spread out, whispering softly to each other in tongues that sounded gutteral to outsiders. Each left their assault rifle slung, brandishing instead what Sli had assumed to be walking sticks.

“Muskets,” Sli said. “Those are muskets!”

“Bullets are hard to find,” said the lead Kru, Nils. “Expensive. Hard to make. Musket balls, black powder…those are easy. So we use them first.”

“You’re not making me very confident,” said Sli. “Single-shot ramrod-pushers?”

“For most things, it is enough,” grunted Kru.

“Not for this!”

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“I never was good at carvin’ nothin’ but flowers. So that’s what I carve, and if any man says I ain’t fit to do it, well, I’ll carve him too.”

That’s what “Flower” Johnson used to say. A notorious knife fighter, he made ends meet with odd jobs on ranches or posses, but in his ideal moments he was known to carve beautifully detailed blossoms.

Some of them went as gifts to ladies he fancied, or as payment in lieu of cash–if Flower Johnson handed you a walnut rose and said you were paid, you were paid. A few even found their way into the hands of local children, with the rumor being that Johnson had a secret soft spot for them.

But the finest flower he ever carved was on the handle of his trusty Bowie knife, which he called Rose. Each time he got a little better at whittling, he had changed out the handle for one with a better rose, and by the time of his death Rose was a sight to behold.

In the end, though, it was Rose that killed Flower Johnson. At least in a manner of speaking.

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