The Necromancer’s Apprentice
by Andrea Tang
Rin found the boy bleeding out in an alleyway at half past six on a moon-bright Friday night. He’d curled in on himself in the crook of a shadow like an injured animal, and one whiff of the familiar scent rolling off his clothing had confirmed Rin’s suspicions long before she’d actually caught sight of him. His side rose and fell rapidly, breath shuddering with each exhalation, but he breathed. Rin gave herself exactly five seconds to marvel at that. Then she pocketed her hands, walked to his side, and toed his ribs experimentally.
The kid hissed, shrinking in even further beneath what looked like an oversized trench coat. A sliver of his face turned toward the moon, eyes wide and blue and unblinking beneath its light. “Am I dead?” he asked the sky.
Rin slid backward three paces and on to her haunches, considering the question. “No,” she settled on. “You’re not that lucky.”
The filthy fabric of the coat rippled as the boy beneath shrugged himself into a sitting position and scrabbled away from her. “Whoever you are, I don’t want to hear it. Fuck off.”
So the alleycat still had his claws. That got half a smile out of Rin, and she rose from her crouch to join him in the moonlight, so he could see her fully. “Embarrassed over losing the fight, huh? Don’t worry, your male pride will recover. Eventually.”
Then with one hand, she grabbed him unceremoniously by the collar of the trenchcoat. Mindful of his injuries and ignoring his snarl of protest, she hauled him up to her eye level. “Hmm.” Her remaining hand went to her chin, tapping out a thoughtful rhythm as she examined her find. The scent, that smell of roses rotting among the dead, was unmistakable.
“Not a street fight after all,” Rin concluded. “I was afraid of that. Well, come on, then. I know a good doctor. She’s discreet, see.” She slid the kid a sidelong glance. “You’ll want that, with your circumstances.”
He twisted himself around in her grip and bit his lip against what was probably an aborted cry of pain. “I don’t even know you.”
“You would, if you ever came to class,” Rin shot back crisply. “History 462, over at the university. You’re one crap student. You skip so often, you make me look like a teacher’s pet.”
His collar was still wrinkling in the looseness of her fist. “What do you want?” He refused to meet her eyes, but she saw a slow stain of color across his cheekbones, the corners of his full mouth turned down in teenage disgruntlement.
Rin blinked. “Me? That’s simple enough.” Her grip tightened ever so slightly, as she leaned in close, sure to enunciate every word.
“I want to know who you just raised from the dead.”
Cassie opened the door on the first knock, and looked as thoroughly appalled as she ever did whenever Rin dropped by.
Rin raised one hand – the one that wasn’t occupied by keeping the kid upright – in a cheery little wave. “Hi, Cassie.”
“I –“ Cassie closed her eyes and cut herself off. Several expressions flitted across the young doctor’s face before settling into the one Rin was most accustomed to: disapproval. “Christ,” said Cassie, “don’t tell me you’ve dragged some innocent kid into your business.”
“Kid?” Rin’s hand fluttered dismissively. “Nah, you can relax. He’s actually a year ahead of me, if I remember correctly. Though if his attendance record in our history seminar’s anything to go by, the real headscratcher here is how he hasn’t gotten thrown out of college yet.”
Even as she spoke, Cassie was already shooing them inside, carefully taking the half-conscious boy from Rin’s shoulder and awkwardly guiding him to the examination table. He hissed again, and Cassie mumured something soft and low that seemed to calm him, as he allowed himself to be lain down like a child.
Confident that her cause had been seen to, Rin slipped into the waiting room. She didn’t have to wait long. About fifteen minutes later, Cassie emerged, stern and tired, but free of any expression that foretold bad news.
“You have a thing about strays,” she informed Rin without preamble. “It’s a bad habit.”
“I have a thing about pocket money,” Rin corrected her. “The kid screwed up, and there might be a payday in it for me if I can fix it.”
“From who? There’s no client. You’d have to work this one pro bono.”
Rin broke eye contact. There were certain disadvantages to her personal physician being so very familiar with her line of work.
“I think you’re just bored, Rin.” The doctor’s voice was low and accusatory. “Please, don’t drag that poor boy into –“
“The boy’s just a boy, Cass,” Rin interrupted in clipped tones. “Don’t worry so much.”
When Cassie didn’t move from the door of the examination room, Rin ducked around her. The boy was sitting on the table, shirtless and newly bandaged, but awake. Surprise colored his face as Rin appeared.
She held a hand out to him, forestalling any questions. “Come on, kid,” she said to a boy at least a year older than her. “Let’s get you home.”
He studied her hand as if it were a particularly confusing passage in their textbook. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“I’m Rin,” said Rin patiently. “Says so right on the class attendance roster, and the university records too, I daresay.”
He tilted his head, apparently chewing over her answer. “I’m Damien,” he said finally. “I don’t think I can go back to my flat tonight.”
“Who said you would?” she retorted. “Up and at ‘em, Damien.”
He frowned, but a moment later, he accepted her outstretched hand.
Rin heard Damien’s stomach rumble almost as soon as they set foot in her apartment. She bit back a sigh. “I’ll feed you if you answer my questions,” she said, and gave him a little shove into the kitchen.
The kid – Damien – glared at her. “Who says I’m hungry?”
She glanced meaningfully at his belly, then fixed him with a dry stare.
He turned red, looking furious about it. “What do you want to know anyway?”
“You know what,” she said, rummaging through her pantry for the ramen she’d picked up from the campus shop two days ago. “I’m loathe to repeat myself.”
“It was nothing,” he muttered.
“It’s illegal,” she said matter-of-factly, setting a pot of water on the stove.
“So’s downloading free music.”
Rin barked a laugh as she fumbled with the noodle packet. “A dead man’s a bit of a different matter from an mp3 file.”
“Plenty of people try necromancy,” he pointed out, apparently determined to be petulant.
“Yeah, yeah, college is all about experimentation. I suppose your parents should be glad you didn’t pick up a cocaine habit.” She glanced over her shoulder at him. “You haven’t, have you?”
He looked affronted at the notion. “No!”
“So, it’s just a dead man then.”
“Woman,” Damien said softly. “A dead woman.”
“Ah.” Rin dumped her noodles into the pot, where they hit hot water with a satisfying hiss. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“How could you even tell?”
“The smell. Dead roses.” Rin thought for a moment. “Corpses too. It’s a very distinctive combination.”
She guessed, rather than saw, the incredulity of the stare at her back. “Aftertaste of necromancy,” she said by way of explanation. She plucked a noodle from the pot, testing its density. Satisfied, she began to ladle more of them into a bowl. “What are you, a first timer?”
He didn’t take the bait. “She was my mother,” he said in a small voice.
“The dead woman,” said Damien in the same voice. “The one I tried to bring back. That was my mother.”
Rin set the bowl of ramen in front of him. “Eat first,” she commanded. “You’ll need the energy. We’re going to have a very long conversation once that bowl is empty.”
It was no particular mystery to Rin what happened when necromancy went wrong – and it always did go wrong, eventually. Laws banned the practice for a reason, had been passed almost as soon as necromancy itself came into vogue. With the right ingredients, the right runes, and of course, the right memory, life could be created in all the glory of a warm and breathing semblance. Constructs, the skeptics had dubbed the creations, even as the romantics called them ghosts and the superstitious called them abominations.
The trick in the making of the things was memory, the only place in all the world where something dead could still walk and talk and play-act the motions of living. Memory, the secret ingredient, the one component that couldn’t be bought at a discount on the market.
But memory, of course, was inevitably fallible.
“How long?” Rin asked as Damien stared down the bottom of his now empty noodle bowl. “How long did it take, for your mo – for the construct to change?”
The boy’s laugh was a low, bitter rumble in his throat. “Change? What change?”
“All constructs corrupt eventually,” Rin said quietly. “No matter how perfect they seem at first.”
“Perfect,” Damien said in a strangled voice. “Right. Perfection.”
Rin only half listened. “Necromancers build constructs from memory,” she answered absently. “At some point, all memories shift, or twist, or fade. That’s where constructs go… wrong.”
“That means she’d have had to be even remotely right to begin with.” The cold, flat change in Damien’s tone recaptured Rin’s attention, and when his eyes snapped up to meet hers, Rin found herself struggling not to recoil from the true blue gaze. “I didn’t bring back my mother. I made a monster.”
After that, Rin couldn’t bring herself to be entirely surprised when she heard one of the kitchen windows shatter behind her.
Constructs, when they corrupted – and they did always corrupt – abided by three golden rules that governed their bloodthirsty, chaotic existence. One, they lived to hunt, and only to hunt. Two, they always killed what they caught.
And three, they always came for their creators first.
“I don’t understand,” Damien was mumbling, “I locked all the entrances to my flat, I thought it would contain her, she shouldn’t have been able to get out, she couldn’t have found me here, she couldn’t…”
Rin tuned him out, even as she kicked the seat out from under his body. She crouched, arms coming up to cushion his fall, and glanced around his bulk in time to see a wicked dark blade sprouting from the collapsed wooden chair.
“Hey,” she called out mildly, “I liked that chair.”
The only answer was a low, siballant hiss that seemed to echo through the entire apartment.
Rin twisted herself upright and looked at Damien. “Your Frankenstein, I take it.”
His eyes were wide and unseeing. “She shouldn’t be here. I trapped her. Bolts, locks, I practically boarded up the entire place after I got away from her.”
“You’ll find that silly human contraptions like locks don’t really faze constructs,” Rin said grimly, reaching for the knife she usually kept in her back pocket. She bit back a curse as her fingers closed on nothing but lint.
Damien, she realized distantly, was still talking. “She was fast,” he said faintly. “She tried to… She was…” Rin’s eyes traced the motion of his fingers, where they clutched at his ribs. His freshly bandaged ribs.
“Don’t do that,” she snapped, “you’ll irritate the wound.”
That seemed to snap him out of whatever daze he was in. He glared at her with blazing eyes, his mouth forming a thin line.
At least he had stopped babbling. “Stay down,” she ordered, and began to circle the kitchen, careful to avoid stray shards of glass.
It didn’t take long to find what she was looking for. The construct was curled around the edges of the sink, its hair hanging like washed out lines of ink over paper white shoulders. The head was roughly the correct size and shape, but the face was a Picasso, one eye huge and impossibly blue in the center of the forehead, another small and cruel and dark near where the earlobe should have been. A nose was nowhere to be found, but the mouth stretched long and wicked, a black line curving from the edge of the blue eye to a gap where the neck and head met.
Once, it had been a memory of Damien’s mother.
Rin barely had time to widen her stance before the thing erupted from the sink. Rin swerved, caught one preternaturally strong, skeletal leg around the crook of the knee before the kick could land, and slid her own foot around the creature’s free leg, breaking its balance as she shoved. The construct fell, skidded, righted itself in a flash. Dark metal winked from between its fingers. With a snarled curse, Rin ducked the slash of the blade, rolled over her shoulder toward Damien’s felled chair, her fist closing around the hilt of the first black dagger and wrenching it free as she came up.
Then she spun, and thrust. The creature uttered a low shriek that echoed off the walls of the little apartment, its cavernous mouth opening wide as it bucked and twisted around on the blade of its own weapon. Rin grimaced, and stabbed deeper, searching for its core. She found it, with the telltale rip of metal puncturing paper.
The construct shuddered once, twice, the dagger’s hilt straining against Rin’s white-knuckled fingers. Then that strange, oppressive weight was gone, and black ink was collapsing around her in pools and puddles, leaving dark, angry streaks down her arms and along the hems of her jeans.
Speared on the tip of her dagger was a small, grainy photograph of a smiling dark-haired woman with eyes as blue as Damien’s. “You’re lucky,” Rin informed him in a flat voice. “You must not have created it very long ago, or very well. The construct was young. Sloppy.” Easy to destroy.
“You killed her?” asked a small voice under the table.
“It,” Rin corrected, “not her. You’ve said it yourself. That wasn’t your mother.”
“You killed it?”
“No.” Rin crouched, offering a hand. After a few seconds, she shook it at him impatiently, and he took it, fingers clammy on hers. She pulled them both into a standing position. “You can’t kill what’s already dead. You can only destroy the memory, once it’s corrupted and gone rogue. The euphemism the higher-ups use is banishing.”
He didn’t say anything, staring blankly at the black ink dripping on to her floor, the gleam of the blade in her other hand. After a moment, Rin plucked the photograph off the dagger and handed it to him. “This is yours,” she said, then as she turned from him to make for the bathroom: “It’s late. Spend the night if you want. I have a couch.” She shut the door behind her before she could hear his answer, if he had one.
He was gone by morning. Careful inspection of her kitchen revealed that two packets of her favorite brand of ramen were missing. She shook her head and began packing up her books for class. After making her way to her usual spot in the back of the lecture hall, she clicked through some of the more recent news articles on her laptop, bookmarking stories of interest. A woman recently murdered, the smiling photograph familiar and blue-eyed. The latest, the reporters cried, in a string of similar killings. Mothers, fathers, siblings, lovers, dead and smiling in brightly colored pixels across the computer screen. The authorities’ profile of an imagined serial killer accompanied the headlines.
By the time the rustle of books being stuffed into backpacks and the crescendo of chatter alerted Rin to lecture’s end, she had a few ideas about one Damien Grey.
The second time Rin found Damien, he was smoking behind the science building. He saw her spot him, and made to bolt, two seconds too late. Ignoring his squawk of protest, she stubbed out his cigarette, grabbed him by the collar, and tossed him harmlessly into a nearby shed. She forestalled his escape attempt by sitting on him, kicking the door shut behind them as an afterthought. That done, she crossed her legs over his back, and sighed heavily at the switchblade pressed against her thigh. “Relax, kid,” she said to the darkness. “It’s just me.”
The knife didn’t let up. “You scared the hell out of me.”
“Sorry,” said Rin, dimly aware that she probably didn’t sound very sorry at all. “I didn’t want you to run.”
“That hurt,” the boy snarled.
This was going to be a very long conversation, Rin thought sadly. “I was very careful.”
“Like hell. I’m –“
“Injured? Not too injured, otherwise there’s no way Cassie would have let me within two feet of you, let alone take you home.”
He didn’t answer that, but on the bright side, she didn’t feel the stupid switchblade on her thigh anymore.
“I have questions,” Rin announced.
From below her, he snorted. “More?”
“You’re right, I guess this formula must be boring you. Why don’t we try doing this backwards? I’ll give you the answers, and you tell me what the questions are.”
“The cause of death was murder. The victim was your mother. The perpetrator…” Rin debated that one for a moment. “The perpetrator was a necromancer.”
Damien’s body had gone very still beneath her.
She poked him. “Oy. Any questions?”
“Go to hell,” Damien said thickly.
“Been there, done that.” Rin huffed a yawn. “It’s not as exciting as it looks in the movies.”
His hitched sigh shifted the back muscles against her legs. “This wasn’t what they said would happen.”
“Tell me,” said Rin.
“She was already dying,” said Damien. “She was sick, and she wasn’t going to recover. Then men who came to me, they promised they could fix it. They promised that necromancy would bring her back. They sold me the right drugs, that stuff that smells like dead flowers, told me what runes to use. They said she’d be alive and happy again, and everything would be just like it was, before she got sick.”
“Your mother didn’t die of illness.”
“Because they killed her first!” Damien shouted. “They said it was time to put her out of her misery, and – and I don’t know why, I got cold feet, I said no, I wasn’t ready yet and they…” His back hitched again.
She slid off of him, keeping one hand on his shoulder as she shifted herself into a kneeling position beside him. “They killed her anyway.”
“I tried to stop them. I tried. But they didn’t listen, and I… I did everything they said, I used the damn drugs, and the runes, and I had the memento, the photograph ready, but it was bullshit, all of it. The monster I made wasn’t my mother. It tried to kill me. It would have, if I hadn’t run into that alleyway. If I hadn’t –“
“But you did,” said Rin.
“Who were they? The bastards who did this. You’ve got to know.”
Rin chuckled in the dark. “What makes you think I know?”
“You seem to know everything about this crap. Do you?”
“I know enough.”
Damien was growing impatient. “So who were they?”
“Necromancers,” Rin answered promptly.
“I know that!”
“Well, necromancy’s more of an afterthought for this lot, I’m guessing,” said Rin. “They’re obviously familiar with the practice, enough to know their way around runes and toxins. But I’m guessing they’re conmen first, and serial killers second. They target people with vulnerable loved ones, the sick and the dying. They make them promises, sell them the right formula, tell them how to use it. And then they kill the loved one.”
“Why?” Damien asked bleakly. “If they just want money, there’s no need to kill. And if they just want to kill for the thrill of it, why can’t they do it at random?”
Rin shook her head slowly. “I think,” she said, “that they want their targets to use necromancy. They want constructs made – and poor ones too, you can’t make a decent construct when you’re both inexperienced and traumatized, and all of their victims have been exactly that. But why?”
The answer came to her almost as soon as the question fell off her tongue. The third rule of necromancy. Constructs always attacked their creators first. “Bingo,” Rin whispered, shoving the shed door open. She fumbled her way out, breaking into a brisk walk and ignoring the way the sudden light hit her eyes, the shouts of the boy behind her. Perhaps there was a paying job in this after all.
“What’s wrong with you?” Cassie demanded.
“Among other things,” said Rin, “I’m broke.”
“The poor boy’s mother just died, then came back and tried to kill him –“
“Construct,” Rin corrected. “A corrupt construct tried to kill him.”
“And now you’re trying to turn it into some kind of payday so you can… can buy coffee and ramen and –“
“There’s a ring of serial killer necromancers out there taking advantage of grieving families to raise a private army of corrupt constructs. I’m offering to put a stop to it and hand the lot of them over to the authorities, wrapped up pretty as a Christmas present. What’s wrong with that?”
Cassie pinched the bridge of her nose. “What if there’s no bounty on this one?”
Rin just looked at her.
“Well, what if there isn’t?”
“It’s an army of corrupt constructs. There’s a bounty.”
The doctor sighed. “I’ll phone my brother. You’ll want Roger to negotiate this one. I stitch up cuts; I don’t send you to receive them.”
Half an hour later, Rin had returned to her building with the barest bones of a contract – but enough, all the same, to guarantee a paycheck. Cassie’s brother had been practicing law almost as long as he’d been bending it, and understood the nuances of dealmaking the same way he understood the politics of the ever volatile underground networks of those who dealt in death and the undead.
Most importantly, he could always, always find Rin a job.
When she got to her floor, she was somehow unsurprised to find her door ajar, the lock hastily picked, and Damien Grey curled into a darksome little ball of defiance on her couch.
“You’re a banisher,” he announced without preamble.
She sighed. “Come to lift more ramen noodles off me, I see.”
“You are, aren’t you? You banished my – the thing I made.”
“I told you already,” Rin said patiently, “I’m Rin. I’m a student, like you.”
“And a banisher,” he added stubbornly.
The kid really wasn’t going to let up. “Well,” Rin conceded, going to the kitchen in search of her noodles, “I freelance.” Which was a fair enough assessment of what she did. The pay wasn’t steady, but bounties on most constructs, especially the overtly corrupt, usually ran high enough to cover her rent.
Damien was eyeing her speculatively. “So you were a necromancer once.”
Rin paused, only for a second, before resuming her dinner preparations. “Like I said,” she answered, rummaging through her cabinets, “I freelance.”
She heard him shuffle over to her. “Will you teach me?”
A note of desperation clung to his voice, turning her head. “You know what the definition of insanity is? Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.”
“It’s not the same thing,” Damien said heatedly. “You could teach me to do it right this time.”
Rin barked out a harsh laugh. “There’s no such thing as doing necromancy right. All constructs corrupt in the end. The sooner people realize that, the less trouble we’ll all have.”
“But you’ve done it before.”
“I have,” she confirmed dully. No point in dancing around the truth. “As have certain associates of mine. Most of them are dead. I’m not interested in helping you commit suicide, kid.”
“Quit calling me kid. You’re no older than me.”
“Then stop asking for stupid things.”
“You didn’t learn this all by yourself,” he insisted with more than a note of challenge in his voice. “Who taught you?”
“Someone with eyes the same color as yours,” said Rin, watching surprise dawn over the kid’s face. “I already told you. I don’t help people kill themselves.”
He bit his lip. “Will you teach me to be a banisher then? You said the people who killed my mother are making other people create corrupt constructs on purpose. Let me help you find them.”
“Who says I’m looking?”
An expression passed over Damien’s lips that could almost be a smile. “You freelance. A whole string of corrupt constructs means a lot of bounty.”
“My bounty,” Rin pointed out. “I’m not very good at sharing.”
“Keep my cut, then.”
She snorted. “What, that’ll be your apprenticeship fee? For learning to slay the undead?”
She met the grim blue stare and sighed. The boy, evidently, was serious. “I’ll point out that I hunt constructs, not their makers.”
“It makes no difference to me,” said Damien. His voice was flat. “It’s still a hunt.”
“You’ll have to learn to fight.”
“I can fight.”
She studied him, trying to measure him up. His shoulders were broad despite the lean build, and there was muscle under the thin material of his T-shirt. He was taller than her, she noted, and his gaze, watching her watch him, was flat and unflinching.
“After dinner,” said Rin.
Damien moved well, despite the flesh wound, was stronger than she might have anticipated for a boy she had pinned so easily before. But he had a tendency to overthink, and second guessing himself slowed him down. His hesitancy over his reach and the curl of his fingers suggested that he wasn’t used to fighting weaponless. They would have to work on that, she decided, and absently wondered when they had become a they.
“You’re compromising yourself,” Rin called, ducking under a kick, and coming up to land a hit to his abdomen. As he curled in on himself, she swept his balance neatly, and put a toe to his chin, keeping him on his back a moment. “You see?”
Then she bent and helped him to his feet. “Pay attention to footwork this time. If you want to throw a kick that high, then mean it, and make sure you’re fast enough to land it before I can get to your other foot.”
Damien obeyed, shifting his feet into a more solid stance. “You learned this as a banisher?”
“No,” said Rin, the truth unbidden.
“As a necromancer,” she said, and went for his neck.
They kept at it for another twenty minutes. She won, of course. Damien was far from a poor fighter, but she had too much on her side: a little more experience, a little more speed, and many more brushes with death. They sparred a couple more times before she made him stop, eyeing the way he favored his healing wound.
Rin handed him a knife then. “First lesson,” she said, “drive the blade in deep, and aim just below where the heart would be. You’ll find its core there – the photograph, or whatever memento the necromancer used to make the construct. You find the core, and you put your knife through it.”
Damien fingered the knife, watching the light glint off the edges. “When do we start?” he asked in a strange voice. “When can we hunt them?”
“When you heal,” said Rin, without looking at him, “and not before.”
Two weeks later, she let him banish a construct for the first time. It was a weak, pale thing, broken from the start, and almost as corrupt as his own had been. Five minutes into the fight, black ink dripped victoriously from the knife she had loaned him. Another week later, he banished another.
“I’m ready,” he said, at the month’s end.
“Finish your soup,” she answered. “I added vegetables tonight.”
Damien frowned, flexing a hand. “I’m getting good. At this banishing stuff.”
He was. It wasn’t a boast, simply a statement of fact. In a year, he might match her level of skill, and in another year, might surpass it.
“You’ll do,” Rin said neutrally.
“So when can we do the job? The real one.”
“They’re all real,” she answered around a mouthful of noodles.
He rolled his eyes, jaw setting stubbornly.
She sighed and swallowed. “Like I said. When you heal.”
“I barely have a mark left!”
Rin tilted her head. “Don’t you?”
The full lips went thin, and she braced herself for yet another fight. Instead, he simply slurped up the rest of his soup. “I’ll wash the dishes,” he said stiffly, when he finished. “I want to turn in early tonight. Test tomorrow.”
It was a poor excuse, and they both knew it. His cheeks reddened a little as he bent to clear the table, knowing he’d been caught in his unspoken lie. Rin, for her part, watched him in silence. This was quick becoming an old dance between them. He’d ask to begin the job. When you heal, she’d say, and not before. They would argue, and she would always end the fight with the same words that began it:
When you heal, and not before.
She wondered when he would understand her meaning.
Lying awake in the dark three hours later, she heard him sneaking out the door, and sighed. There would be time to catch up to him later. She could spare an hour to sleep, at least.
In half that time, though, her phone was already ringing. The voice on the other end of the line was one she knew well.
“I have your boy. Please come out to the pier, immediately if you please.”
Two dark, familiar shapes greeted Rin from the pier at the north end of the city docks, while she shivered against the autumn ocean breeze. The taller of the two, noting her arrival, smiled over the gun he had pressed against Damien’s temple. “Rin.”
Her head bobbed in an ingrained gesture of respect. “Lucien.”
“Rin,” said Damien desperately, frozen in place on his knees, cringing away from the gun as best he could with his hands jammed behind him. “Rin, it’s a construct.”
“I know,” said Rin.
Lucien did not look like a construct. He had no monstrous extraneous features, no blood red eyeballs or grotesquely contorted limbs or streaks of ink black running a rivulet of cracks down the side of his face. He simply looked like a beautiful, blue-eyed young man – and beautiful was the word. He had no blemishes on his skin, no birthmarks or bruises or wrinkles, only an expanse of alabaster against the sharp, perfect line of his dark, tailored suit. Immaculately clean, like an airbrushed magazine photo made real, as no living man could be.
“I’m going to kill your boy now,” said Lucien.
“No,” Rin said calmly as she shuffled towards them, “you’re not.”
The construct looked intrigued at her lack of compliance. “Oh?” At his feet, Damien began to speak, incomprehensible words that choked off into a cry of pain when Lucien, sighing, broke the boy’s wrist. Their matching eyes – one pair now wide with agony, the other pair hooded and bored – reflected the midnight blue of the ocean under the moon.
“We were going to run away together,” Lucien said thoughtfully, raising his voice slightly to be heard over Damien’s whimper. “Remember?”
“Yes,” she said tiredly, loping to his side. “I remember.”
Lucien’s smile faltered, and he suddenly looked pained. “Did you love me?”
“To unreasonable levels,” said Rin.
Those blue eyes stared at her, unblinking. He might have been Damien’s brother. “Do you still love me?”
“Always,” said Rin, which was when she stabbed him.
The construct cried out once, the gun clattering against the wood of the pier as he stared at the blade in his chest. Then he sighed, a sound not unlike the one he had made when he snapped Damien’s wrist. A gust of wind blew past, making Rin blink. Lucien was gone.
Suddenly, Rin was on her knees, one arm wrapped around her protégé’s shoulders while the other cradled his arm. “You’ll heal,” she told him, her voice faint. “It’s a clean break. Lucien grants that courtesy, at least.”
Damien’s lips were pale, his teeth chattering. “R-Rin. He didn’t leave behind a photo – a photograph. Th-there’s no ink or anything.”
“That’s because I didn’t banish him.” Dimly, she was aware that she had begun rubbing the kid’s back in slow circles, trying to make him stop shivering.
Because she had aimed too low. Because the knife wasn’t long enough. Because the angle was off. Because she had put a knife to him a dozen times or more by now, and still she hadn’t pierced his core, and there was no good reason why she would have succeeded tonight.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. Her fingers curled a little into his T-shirt, right at the nape of his neck. “You’ll heal.”
“You called it Lucien,” Damien said much later, after Cassie had set his wrist and shouted at Rin behind closed doors.
Rin sighed, and buried herself to the chin beneath her bedcovers. “I said you could spend the night. I didn’t say we were having a goddamn slumber party. Why aren’t you on the couch, anyway?”
On the floor beside her bed, he shrugged, twisting around in the sleeping bag that cocooned him. “It’s warmer in this room. Hey, constructs don’t have names. They’re not people.”
“But you named him.”
“Well, yeah,” said Rin. “I made him.”
Rin raised an eyebrow, knowing he couldn’t see it in the dark. “What, no cries of shock and betrayal? Just oh?”
“You used to be a necromancer. I figured you must have necromanced somebody.”
“Don’t say ‘necromanced’; it sounds stupid.”
“I’m injured,” he retorted easily. “I’ll say whatever I want. He had blue eyes. Like mine.”
“I’m surprised you noticed. You looked a little preoccupied with getting tortured and having your life threatened.”
“Rin, the construct broke my wrist. It’s not like it set thumbscrews on me or whatever.”
“Thumbscrews,” Rin repeated flatly.
“I’ll keep the suggestion in mind the next time we run into him.”
“So there’s going to be a next time?”
Rin sighed. “There’s always a next time with Lucien.”
“So why haven’t you banished it? Him? It?” Even in the dark, she could tell he was frowning. “Him. It. Huh.”
“Just pick a pronoun and stick with it,” Rin said, desperately regretting the moment of madness that had possessed her to invite Damien Grey into her home.
“Lucien was your teacher, wasn’t he?”
“Something like that,” said Rin.
“He taught you necromancy?”
“And banishing. He taught me… a lot of things.”
“And he’s dead now.”
Rin closed her eyes. “Not quite dead enough to leave the handguns alone, it seems.”
“No,” said Damien. “That was the construct, not the man.”
“How wise my student grows.” She sighed, too young to feel so old. “Yes, the man is gone. The man’s been gone a long while now, and leaves behind the monster, so to speak. My fault, that last bit.”
“Rin,” Damien said in a different voice.
Rin sighed and opened her eyes. “Damien.”
“I think I know what you meant now. About waiting to heal. You weren’t talking about my injury, were you? The first one, I mean.”
“We don’t really heal,” Damien continued. “Not completely. Not when you love someone so much that you make a monster of them.”
“No,” said Rin after a beat, “I suppose we don’t.”
“They’re still out there. The men that killed my mother. The ones that are killing other people, and making the people who loved them build an army of monsters.”
“I want to go after them.”
“But I’ll wait, okay? Until we’re strong. Until we’re ready. Maybe not healed, but, you know. Unbroken.”
The eyebrow shot back up. “We?”
“Yeah.” Defiance colored his voice, and she imagined the wry smile that accompanied it. “We.”
She offered a smile of her own to the darkness. “Go to sleep, kid.”
Morning found two identical bowls of ramen noodles sitting on the kitchen table.More stories like this by topic: Asian-American authors, Authors of color, Characters of color, Chinese-American authors, Women authors