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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They called it kobito no haru, the “sweetheart’s spring,” because you were supposed to meet your destined there. I’m sure the was passed around, whispered, in the halls and bathrooms of every high school in Sapporo. It said that you would meet your soulmate at the spring, and that you would know because your heart would flutter, your knees would wobble, and you might even pass out.

I didn’t believe in this, of course, butI was curious. So I went to the spring on a day there wasn’t likely to be anyone there, the evening of the first day of school, when most folks young or naive enough to believe in that were furiously cramming.

When I first saw the ghostly apparition, the spectral figure of a woman in Sengoku-era raiment…well, my heart fluttered, my knees wobbled, and I started to see that dark tunnel vision you get just before you pass out

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HOST: And welcome back to our second panel of the program, where we will discuss the enduring cultural presence and popularity of zombies. Joining me today are Dr. Thomas Urrrggghhh, chair of Undead Studies at the Manchester Underversity, Lydia Crowflame, a licensed resurrectionist with the American Zombie Association (AZA), and The Fleshsipper, and eldritch horror so far beyond mortal understanding that its very name is a whisper of madness on the tongues of the damned.

DR. URRRGGGHHH: Thank you, happy to be here.

MS. CROWFLAME: A pleasure.

THE FLESHSIPPER: Delightful as always.

HOST: First question, and this one is for you, Dr. Urrrggghhh. Do you think that representation of zombies in media, motion pictures especially, has improved from the days when the depiction of undead was forbidden by the Hays Code unless they were clearly evil and roundly destroyed as punishment?

DR. URRRGGGHHH: Well, we have and we haven’t. On the one hand, there are more positive depictions of zombies in films, and the entire genre of the zom-com. On the other hand, you have constant livewashing – can you name a single film featuring a speaking role for zombies that has cast an actual zombie actor?

MS. CROWFLAME: I’m reminded of a panel at Stardance about zombie films. Five living white guys up there onstage, because “no one could find a zombie filmmaker.” Until you have more undead filmmakers, more undead actors in lead roles, and more undead executives, this will keep happening. Less of a greenlight, more of a deadlight, you know?

THE FLESHSIPPER: The problem that keeps reoccurring is that zombies are seen as monolithic, with each one representing the whole, while the living are allowed to be individuals. The only true monolith is the enormity of a universe of beings that care only for universal entropy.

DR. URRRGGGHHH: I think you might find that eldritch beings are less monolithic than you think.

MS. CROWFLAME: That’s beside the point; eldritch beings that–if they ever lived–were made of no ordinary matter known to mortal ken are in a position of power and influence. So too are the living, vampires, and to a lesser extent wights and ghasts. Zombies are the other, the powerless other, in all of this.

THE FLESHSIPPER: I’m not arguing that, Lydia. Rather, I am suggesting that there are unseen and unwritten rules for those in power–like the wriggling tentacles of madness on a dark mind–that are silently and unconsciously obeyed. It may as well be a single organism, the Hollywood system, for all the conformity it enforces. Zombie culture is vibrant and varied, yet is obsessively reduced.

HOST: Do you think we’ll see this change in our lifetimes?

DR. URRRGGGHHH: That very phrase there is part of the problem. “Lifetimes?” What does that even mean to a properly risen undead?

MS. CROWFLAME: I’m going to be generous and assume you meant “existences.” I think…yes. Given what we’ve seen with other marginalized groups, once Hollywood realizes the market, they will tap into it.

THE FLESHSIPPER: Behind every mortal yet alive there are ten ghosts, and that is a powerful, untapped market. Sooner or later, we’ll start to see Hollywood try to appeal to this. The Chinese undead market especially.

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She shall move in Silence, for her words carry meaning.
Her herald shall be the Scorpion, and he shall speak.
She will be as the Servant of the Scorpion in all ways.
They will travel the world in this guise, incognito.
But woe betide those who forget the bitter ice cold.
Woe betide the tortured souls of the seventh level.
She sets forth looking not for warmth, but for death.
Souls for the reaping, poison for the spreading.
Scorpions upon scorpions for an unwary world.

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