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The plaza was already filling with people, notables in their Sunday finest. Men, in suits and hats all made from animals that had lived and died continents away, clutching fine hardwood canes. Women, parasols in hand, their raiment soaring to such heights of impracticality that many had maids about to help manage their trains and massive hats. All of them thronging on the square’s ancient cobbles toward the assembly building. It looked like a great religious edifice, but it was a secular one until noon, when the emperor himself would address the crowd.

Already, moving throughout the throngs, secret policemen could be seen–the only men in ill-fitting suits who looked like they’d seen a little sun. An occasional shout from above, too, as curious folk who had flocked to the upper-story windows in the Old Town were cleared out. The sharp-eyed might have seen the barrel of a bolt-action rifle, the glint of a high-power scope, from some of those now-darkened windows. There had been no sign of them, but it was an absolute certainty that some of those cleaned-out apartments and tenements hid the new repeating rifles, machine guns. The State Evidence Bureau–what an innocuous name for such a far-reaching and keen-beaked octopus!–was taking no chances in a repeat of the Peace Riots from the year before.

From the shadows in a bricked-up arch, Jan watched the preparations, quietly gnawing on a piece of tough meat from an Old Town street vendor. “They might think they’re prepared, but those preparations are ten years out of date. When the emperor is actually out there, spouting his nonsense, we’ll see who is really safe.”

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They arrived quietly for folks committed to utterly destroying the town.

The old Fox manor, on the outside of town, had been left fallow since Mrs. Fox had died in ’87. Her only relatives, two bitter cousins from upstate, were both happy to let the place crumble so long as the other didn’t inherit. One morning, though, there was activity there. Lights in repaired windows, brush cleared away, and planking over the roof holes. Perhaps most distressingly for the high school students, decades’ worth of graffiti had been scrubbed off the brick and one of the premier love nests in a fifteen-mile-radius was suddenly off-limits.

At a city council meeting, a concerned citizen who was definitely not acting as a shill for one of the Fox cousins, asked Sheriff Decker directly about the new ownership. “I just want to make sure it’s legal and lawful,” she said, “and not some dirty squatters building a meth lab just to get their dirty crystals into our schools quicker.”

Decker, seated at the end of the council table with cowboy boots on the table, waved the concern away. “They’re great people living there, great people,” he said. “The best. Not like most of the folks come though here, just looking to steal, not like all those folks on Pettus St., but good folks.”

“Well, have you been over there? Have you talked to them? Are they paying taxes? What’s their name?”

Once again, Decker flapped a hand as if shooing away a fly. “They say they bought the land, and I believe them. Didn’t catch their name, but I’m sure they’re paying taxes. Very nice young man answered the door, said his grandmother bought the place to retire in. I’m sure they’ll be great citizens.”

“Have you checked? Looked at the paperwork?”

Decker deliberately lowered his cowboy boots from the table and rocked forward. The big Stetson he wore to hide that Decker family baldness tilted as he looked down the length of his nose at the council chamber.

“I’m sure they’ll be great citizens,” he said with an air of finality. “You want more than that, you can go there and bother them yourself.”

Business soon moved on to voting for sewer repairs (failed), money for repainting the elementary school (failed) and–the reason Decker was there–expansion of the county jail to house inmates from one county over for a fee (passed). As the discussion continued, an attendee slipped out of the back of the chamber and sauntered away. Twenty minutes later, after a brisk walk, they whistled into the Fox house.

“Looks like we’re good,” they said. “What can I say? I’m a convincing liar, especially when the sheriff is that clueless.”

“The Marquess heard Syd’s news with quiet elation.” A voice, soft and feminine but commanding, a steel saber in a velvet scabbard, replied. “She went on to ask if anyone at the town meeting had expressed any concerns, for as Syd well knew, the first days after their arrival were always the most dangerous to their work.”

“Other than a shill who took twenty bucks from Veronica Fox to complain? Nah.” As Syd spoke, their voice and appearance changed, running like tallow and fluttering in pitch. They’d entered the manse looking like a nondescript middle-aged busybody, the sort that would attend city council meetings for kicks, but once the Marquess had finished, Syd was sporting pink hair in a buzz cut, some very metal attire, and a distinctly more feminine look.

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After a few moments’ search, Chris found the source of the noise. A kid, barely a teenager, was perched on the lip of a concrete retaining wall, overlooking the highway and onramp. There was a sharp glittering of reflected light as Chris approached, and it only took a moment to ascertain why: the kid’s upper body was covered with protruding crystals, a deep violet hue all.

“Yeah, I can see you staring,” the kid said, without looking. “I know I’m crystalizing. Stick around long enough and you’ll get to see how far it’ll go.” The words were half-choked by sobs, and in the flashes of gas station light, Christ could see tear-streaked eyes.

“They used to think you could catch it,” said Chris softly. “They called it a crystophage, gave everyone medicine to protect themselves against it. But you know what? They’re just scared.”

“Yeah,” sniffed the kid. He drew a sleeve across his oozing nose. “You’ve heard what they call folks like me.”

“Oh sure,” Chris said. “Rock salt. Prism. Crystal meth was a big one when I was your age.”

“My parents keep asking if I want to go away,” the kid continued. “They say there are camps…places where they can cut out the crystals before they grow. Make you…normal.”

“Horrible places, and they don’t even work for all the nightmares they inflict on poor kids like you,” said Chris. “You wanna be normal that bad?”

“Yeah,” said the kid.

“Really?”

There was a moment’s pause. “Normal is how they keep everyone in line,” the kid said after a moment. “Normal is how they make you feel how you’re the one who’s wrong, for nor being what they want you to be. Like you have a choice. And you know what? I like me. The crystals? They’re beautiful. They have this hum about them…it’s like music. When the light and the wind are right, there’s this hum, this tingle, and it’s the best thing in the world.” He paused. “Like being in love, only better.”

Chris nodded. “I know exactly what you mean, kiddo.”

The kid smiled a wan smile. “I’ve heard a lot of folks say that, but they never do. The school counselor’s favorite, even if she wouldn’t know what I’m going through if it bit her on the ass. I bet you think you’re helping, but you have no idea.”

“Oh no?” Chris rolled up a sleeve, exposing a lattice of brilliant heptagonal crystals. Beginning around the elbow, they grew in complexity and color until they were nearly black where the fabric cut them off again. “I cover them up.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because it’s easier. Because when I was your age there was nobody for me to look up to, nobody to sit down next to me and tell me it was okay.” Chris sighed, and looked out over the car lights on the highway. “Maybe I’m a coward. I don’t know.”

The kid was quiet for a bit. “You know what? That helps a little. Sometimes you forget that you’re not the only one.”

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“Ha! Get away from here, you!” Sergei swung his torch at the creature. Alexei barely had a glance at the thing as it scuttled away like a deer on the hoof, easily bounding over the fence. But what he saw was disturbing: darker than the oppressive night that surrounded them both, slick and smooth in the cool night air.

“What was that?” Alexei whispered.

“Barrowmorph,” said Sergei. “Never heard of them?”

His apprentice shook his head.

“I’m not surprised. Death is a taboo topic, and the things that happen to the dead after they no longer have any problems of their own are even more so. Well, consider this entry number one in your bestiary.”

Alexei looked down at where the creature had been as they approached. The lantern light cast stark shadows over a fresh grave, with the earth atop it disturbed down to the coffin. The still-bright triple-beamed cross was visible, giving the reflected lamplight a ghostly sheen of the underworld.

“Shall I fill it in?” Alexei asked.

“Yes, do so. And listen while you work, afterward we’ll set some traps.”

Alexei began to shovel the earth in, while Sergei leaned on a nearby headstone.

“Barrowmorphs come in from the countryside and try to dig up fresh graves,” Sergei said. “I don’t know what they do out there when they’re not graverobbing. Maybe they’re part of the life cycle of something else, I don’t really care. But when you find one, and you will find more, scare it off if you must and shoot it if you can.”

“Should have brought the revolver tonight?” Alexei grunted.

“Normally not a good idea unless you know something foul is about,” said Sergei. “My mentor shot a man laying midnight flowers once.”

“I see.”

“Barrowmorphs try to get into the recently dead. Then they devour the corpse, messy business that, and take on its form. That’s why they like fresh ones, you see. Less to get wrong. The fresher they are, the more of a sense they get of who that person was when they crack open the skull and suck out the brains.”

Alexei’s stomach heaved a bit. “So that barrowmorph…was trying to eat and take the form of whoever was buried here?”

“That’s right.” Sergei glanced at the headstone. “Maria Feororovna here almost wandered back into town wearing her burial clothes. And that we do not want.”

“What…what happens then?”

“It varies, but it’s never pretty. Usually folks catch on pretty quick, and there’s a ruckus as the thing is killed. Pretty traumatic when you’re already in mourning. Some folks, grief-addled, see this thing that looks like their beloved and parrots some of their words. So they bring the damn thing in and start living with it. I think that’s what they want, honestly, to be cared for and fed.”

The dirt was mostly back in the grave, now; Alexei began tamping it down with the shovel blade as he’d been shown earlier. “What if they don’t meet anybody that knew the dead?” he said.

“Well, then you get even more complications. Especially if the barrowmorph is around when somebody else dies—they might just decide they like that form better and have themselves a little feast. In real bad cases, like one up in Zelekhovo, they might sort of hop around for a long time, getting fed and pampered by grieving folks.”

Alexei drove his shovel into the ground. “Why not just let them?” he said.

“What?” said Sergei.

“Let them. Let the things eat up the dead, who have no use for those bodies anymore, and go get fed. What’s the difference?”

“Some folks aren’t approving of their relations getting devoured, for one,” Sergei said. “Not exactly the Resurrection they were promised. Some of the Barrowmorphs are real good mimics, but that’s all they are. Like a parrot. There’s no real soul there, just an animal looking for a meal ticket.”

Alexei shrugged. “Some folks might be okay with that.”

“Most folks aren’t okay with the barrowmorph deciding to cut out the middleman and start murdering folk,” said Sergei. “In Zelekhovo, they found a whole nest of them. One had gotten away, been left alone, and they eventually found twenty-seven dead.”

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“Hear me, if you would.”

“We walk under the same sky, breathe the same air, and should we perish, we return to the same earth. That alone binds us as tightly as any family. And like any family, we are may be cross with one another. We may act out. But yet, we may also forgive.”

“You did what you thought to be right. It may have been so, it may not, but the important thing is that you acted from the heart. In placing you here, I was acting not from the heart, but from the head. In my deepest being, I wish I could have let you do what you would, to follow your own star.”

“But the crown on my brow compelled me to action. Not to vengeance, but to mercy. Placing you here was necessary, but it is no longer. You need not repent of what you have done; all I ask is that you hear me out and consider that we might go together as one. The heart and the head often diverge, but we can set them alight together on the proper path.”

“Your stay here was only to allow passions to cool, to convince the people below that there was no threat. They are brilliant folk, hardworking and true, but you have seen how panicky they can be, how often they react with fear instead of love. But now that the heat of the moment has passed, I come before you clear-eyed and with open arms.”

“I ask that we work to right the wrongs that have been inflicted upon our people, to bring justice to those whose transgressions were far beyond whatever petty squabbles you and I may have had. Join me in agreeing on this, if we can agree on nothing else: the people of this place deserve protection, they deserve to fulfill the purpose life has in store for them. Join me in seeing that this comes to pass.”

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The procedure is simple enough. You provide a stimulus, check to see what neurons fire, and then target them for elimination just like you would if you painted a target for a precision warhead.

Once she was on the floor, I knelt around her, squeezing inward with both knees to keep her prone. As that dirty bitch Caleb is so fond of observing, the same techniques you use to look good in a formal dress are the ones you can use to subdue someone in a formal dress.

“Read the words on this card,” I said, holding it up.

“Fuck you,” Sanderson said, between clenched teeth.

“Not when I’m on the clock, sweetie,” I said. It was really just for the sake of a personal joke; Sanderson was about fifteen years too old for me, and I could see the ghosts of several lasered-off tramp stamps now that I was up close.

I applied a little shock with the “joy buzzer” – much more effective than a gun, in my experience. She couldn’t even scream; the same mechanism that made every nerve fiber burn made her completely lock up.

“Let’s try that again, shall we?” I said. “Speak clearly, so the electrodes on your skull can hear.”

“Merger…acquisition…inheritance…board of directors…” Sanderson read.

Some prefer nanobots, but they leave more of a trace, and can even be tracked back to their manufacturer. I prefer targeted ionizing radiation; there’s a higher risk of cancer and brain damage, but it’s untraceable. And if we’re being honest, the folks that hire me aren’t concerned with cancer or brain damage.

Sanderson responses had lit up the scanner beautifully; I made a few quick notes on my phone and then switched it to “kill mode.” The brief, intense burst of radiation left her passed out and slack-jawed on the floor. I rolled her on her side and poured out her drink; anyone who stumbled in would think she’d just gone on a bender.

You might think it would just be easier to kill a target. After all, that kills every memory you want gone, and can be done remotely from blocks away, or via a drone. But not so often as you think. People who have recently been disinherited are always a major draw, as are business competitors. Kill a good idea, but keep a young and hungry VP from ascending to CEO.

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