The Last Necromancer – C.J. Archer

The other prisoners eyed me as if I were a piece of tender meat. I was someone new to distract them from their boredom, and small enough that I couldn’t stop one—let alone four—from doing what they wanted. It was only a matter of who would be the first to enjoy me. “He’s mine.” The prisoner’s tongue darted out through his tangled beard and licked what I supposed were lips, hidden beneath all that wiry black hair. “Come here, boy.” I shuffled away from him but instead of the brick wall of the cell, I smacked into a soft body. “Looks like he wants me, Dobby. Don’t ye, lad?” Large hands clamped around my arms, and thick fingers dug into my flesh through my jacket and shirt. The man spun me round and I gaped up at the brute grinning toothlessly at me. My heart rose and dove, rose and dove, and cold sweat trickled down my spine. He was massive. He wore no jacket or waistcoat, only a shirt stained with blood, sweat and grime. The top buttons had popped open, most likely from the strain of containing his enormous chest, and a thatch of gray hair sprouted through the gap and crept up to his neck rolls. Hot, foul breath assaulted my nostrils.

I tried to turn my face away but he grasped my jaw. The wrenching motion caused my hair to slide off my forehead and eyes, revealing more of my face than I had in a long time. A new fear spread through me, as sickening as the man I faced. Only two prisoners seemed interested in a boy, but if they realized I was a girl, the others would likely want me too. “Anyone ever tell you you’re too pretty for a boy?” My tormentor chuckled, but he didn’t seem like he’d discovered my secret. “Pretty boys can get themselves into trouble.” Girls even more so. It was just my ill luck to get caught stealing an apple from the costermonger’s cart outside the cemetery and wind up in the overcrowded holding cell at Highgate Police Station. The irony wasn’t lost on me, but it wasn’t in the least amusing. As an eighteen year-old girl, I should be separated from the men, but I’d been passing myself off as a thirteen year-old boy for so long it hadn’t even occurred to me to tell the policemen.

With my half-starved body, and mop of hair covering most of my face, nobody had questioned my gender or age. The big brute jerked me forward, slamming me against his body. My nose smacked into a particularly filthy patch of his shirt and I gagged at the combined stenches of sweat, vomit, excrement and gin. I wasn’t too clean myself, but this fellow’s odor was overpowering. Bile burned my throat but I swallowed it quickly. Showing weakness would only make it worse for me. I knew that from experience. “Come here and keep old Badger warm.” Warm? It was summer, and the cell was hotter than a furnace with four adult men and myself crammed into a space designed for one. “I’m next,” said the bearded Dobby, closing in to get a better look at me.

“If there’s anything left of him after old Badger’s broken him in.” Badger chuckled again and fumbled with the front of his trousers. I closed my hands into fists and clamped down on my fear. Shouting for the constable wouldn’t help. He’d told the other prisoners to “Enjoy,” when he’d tossed me into the cell. It had only been a few minutes since he’d walked off, whistling. It felt like hours. I had to fight now. It was the only way left. Not that I stood a chance against the men, but they might beat me unconscious, with any luck.

It was best not to be awake while they took their liberties. I swung my fist, but Badger was faster than he looked. He caught my wrist and sneered. “That ain’t going to help you.” The sneer vanished and he shoved me into the wall. I put my hands up and managed to stop myself smashing into the whitewashed bricks, but my wrists and arms jarred from the force. I gasped in pain, but smothered the cry that welled up my throat. “Leave the boy alone.” The voice wasn’t one I’d heard yet. It didn’t come from outside the cell but from another prisoner to my right.

“What’d you say?” Badger snarled. “I said leave the boy alone. He’s just a child.” I turned and pressed my back into the wall. My rescuer stood in a similar position, his arms crossed over his chest. He was perhaps late twenties, with fair hair and cloudy gray eyes circled by red-rimmed lids. He wasn’t nearly as tall as Badger, nor as solid, and I doubted he could defeat either Badger or Dobby in a fight. My heart sank. “You going to make us?” Dobby asked. The man shrugged then winced, as if the movement hurt.

He sported a bruise on his cheek, and his blond hair was matted with blood. “One must try. It’s the decent thing to do.” “‘One must try.'” Badger mimicked the other man’s toff accent to perfection. Dobby and the fourth prisoner, lounging on the cot bed, laughed. Dobby straightened his back, threw out his chest, and affected a feminine walk to where the man stood. The prisoner on the bed laughed even harder at the hairy beast’s acting. “Oh, protect me from these brutes, sir,” whimpered Dobby in a high voice. “You’re my hero.

” The blond man lowered his hands to his sides and curled them into fists. I held my breath and waited for the first punch to be thrown. The man smiled instead. It held no humor. Dobby tugged on the lapels of the blond man’s jacket, pretending to straighten it, then fidgeted with the high, stiff shirt collar. The gentleman wore no tie, and his hat and gloves were also missing. The fine cut of his clothes reminded me of my father, always so perfectly groomed. Even the fellow’s aristocratic bearing was very much like my father’s. Whether it was also an affectation this gentleman had developed, it was difficult to tell. I wasn’t as experienced with the upper members of society and their ways as I used to be.

“Finished?” the blond man drawled. I wondered why the gentleman had landed in jail and why he was defending me, a stranger. He’d get himself killed if he didn’t keep quiet. His fun spoiled by the gentleman’s lack of fear, Dobby snorted and moved away. He turned back to me and licked his lips. Badger wiped the back of his hand over his mouth and eyed me with renewed interest. He reached for me, but the blond man smacked his hand away. Neither Badger nor I had noticed him approach. Badger bared his teeth in a snarl. “You don’t get to ruin Badger’s fun!” He smashed his fist into the blond man’s face, sending him reeling back into the bed.

The prisoner lounging there had to quickly pull up his legs or be sat on. The blond man recovered, and with a growl of rage, lunged at Badger. But he swung his fists wildly and his blows merely glanced off the bigger, meaner prisoner. Badger responded with another punch to the gentleman’s jaw. Blood splattered from the blond man’s mouth as he careened backward and slammed into the wall. His head smacked into the bricks, and the crack of his skull turned my stomach. Dobby laughed, sending spittle flying from the slit in his beard. Badger dusted off his hands and watched as the gentleman folded in on himself and crumpled to the floor like a ragdoll. My heart sank, and it was only then that I realized I’d let it rise in hope. My rescuer was dead.

A sickening fear assaulted me along with the memories of that terrible night five years ago when my mother had died. I could still hear my father’s accusation, still feel the sting of his belt across my back, and the icy rain he’d sent me into with the order never to return home. Yet those awful memories could help me now. If the prisoners reacted to my strange ability as my father had… It was my only hope. I knelt alongside the gentleman’s lifeless form and placed my hands on either side of his face, as I had done to my mother after she’d breathed her last. While I’d been overset by tears then, I wasn’t now, and I could see the gray pallor of death consuming his youthful face. I stroked his jaw. It was still warm and his short whiskers felt rough on my palms. Someone behind me snickered. “You can’t do nothing for him now, boy.

Let old Badger comfort you, eh?” I didn’t move and he didn’t rip me away from the body, thank goodness. I needed to touch it. At least, I think I did. I’d only ever done this once before. What if I couldn’t repeat it? What if my connection to my mother had been the key that time, and it wouldn’t work on a stranger? I caressed his face as if we’d been the most intimate of lovers, and willed his spirit to rise. Please speak to me. Do this for me and help me to live. I don’t want to die here like this. I didn’t want to die at all. That in itself was something of a revelation, but I had no chance to think about it further.

A pale wisp rose from the body. At first it looked like a slender ribbon of smoke, then it grew larger and took on the shape of the dead man. It was still as thin as a veil of silk chiffon, but it moved as if it held solid form. The spirit frowned at me from his floating position then settled his gaze on his own lifeless figure. He sighed. “And so it ends.” My heart ground to a halt. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. The spirit blinked at me, as if surprised that we were communicating. “Not your fault.

I brought it on myself. I’d had enough of living, you see.” He sighed again. “My parents said I would amount to nothing and they were right. Couldn’t even get in a good punch.” He nodded at Badger, who was standing behind me. “What’s he saying?” Dobby asked. “He’s talking to the dead,” Badger said. “Boy’s mad.” He snorted and spat a glob of green mucus on the floor near my feet.

“Get up, lad. It won’t go well for you if I have to drag you over here.” The spirit’s face twisted with disgust. “Wish I could have done something to help you, child. I haven’t accomplished much in my life, but my hatred of bullies is well known. Just ask my father.” He laughed at a joke I wasn’t privy to. “That’s something, eh? A legacy I can leave behind?” I didn’t think it was much of a legacy, but I didn’t say so. He was my only friend in that cell, and I needed him. “There is one thing you can do for me before you go,” I whispered.

“What’s he saying?” Dobby repeated. “I don’t bloody care.” Badger’s hand closed around my shoulder and he wrenched me away from the body. He fumbled with the front of his trousers again. I had only seconds. “Get back into your body,” I told the spirit. I no longer kept my voice low. He needed to hear me, and it didn’t matter who else did now. The die was already cast. The spirit didn’t move.

“How?” I wasn’t entirely sure. When my mother had done it, she’d simply floated back down into her body when I’d asked her to. “Lie on your…self,” I told him. Badger’s fingers gripped my jaw, smashing the inside of my mouth into my teeth. “Shut it,” he snapped. “I don’t want to hear no lunatic talk. Do ye hear me?” “He’s soft in the head.” Dobby bent to get a better look at me. If Badger hadn’t been holding my jaw, I would have smashed my forehead into his nose. “Bloody hell!” The other prisoner leapt off the bed, his eyes huge.

“He’s still alive!” Badger let me go. He stumbled back and stared at the now standing body. It wasn’t alive, but the spirit had re-entered it and was controlling it. Even though I knew what was happening, the sight still made my blood run cold. The body turned to Badger. The insipid, blank eyes of the dead man were as lifeless as they had been moments ago, and I wasn’t certain how the spirit could see through them. The third prisoner crossed himself. Dobby mewled. Badger continued to stumble backward until he fell over his own feet and landed heavily on his backside. “What…me…do?” The brittle, thin voice coming from the corpse startled me as much as it did the prisoners.

It was nothing like the spirit’s smooth one. It was as if he labored to get the dead vocal organs working. “I don’t know,” I said. “Jesus christ,” Dobby muttered. He joined the other prisoner in the cell corner, as far away from the body and me as possible. “You…control…me.” The body bent over the cowering, sweating Badger. The brute looked like he’d pee his trousers if the dead man got any closer. “Kill?” “Can you?” I asked. It wasn’t a request but an honest question, since the gentleman hadn’t been able to so much as punch Badger when he’d been alive.

As the color drained from Badger’s face, I realized how it must have sounded. I didn’t correct myself. “Constable!” Badger screamed. “Constable, get this madman out of here!” Was he referring to the reanimated corpse or me? I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Perhaps I was mad, but seeing the cruel Badger frightened out of his wits was the most gratifying experience of my life, and I was going to enjoy it while it lasted. Unfortunately that wasn’t long. The constable’s face appeared at the slit in the door. “What’s all this noise about?” “Get it out! Get it out!” Badger threw his arms over his face, like a child hiding under the sheets at night. “Shut up in there!” “He’s gone mad,” I said to the guard.

Badger kept screaming at the constable to remove “the devil,” and the other prisoner joined in. Dobby slunk back against the wall, away from us. Away from the door. The door that was now opening. “Bloody hell, don’t make me come in there, you bleedin’ idiot,” said the constable, as he stepped into the cell. He wasn’t armed, and his attention was distracted by Badger and the others. “What’s got up your arse, anyway?” “Let’s get out of here,” I said quietly to the corpse. Like an automaton, the body turned stiffly toward the door. The constable took one look at those dead eyes and fell to his knees. “Devil,” he muttered before launching into an earnest prayer.

I almost didn’t move, so stunned was I at the similarity to my father’s reaction when he’d first seen Mama’s corpse rise. But a nudge from the dead man got my feet working. I slipped past the constable and out the door. The body lumbered after me with jerky, awkward steps, as if the swift movement was too difficult for its dead, uncoordinated limbs. “Hoy there! Stop!” Another policeman ran toward us, his truncheon raised. The body pulled back bloodless lips and hissed. The constable dropped the truncheon then took off in the opposite direction. “Hurry,” I urged the body. “If you wish.” His voice sounded stronger, not as strained, and his steps were more sure now.

He seemed to have adjusted to his deceased state. We ran along a corridor, past another two holding cells. Three more constables fell back from us with gasps and terrified mutterings. Only one challenged us, and the corpse under my command pushed him away. Easily. It seemed he was stronger, now he was dead, than when he was alive. “You there!” shouted the constable behind the desk in the reception room. “What’s—?” He stumbled back as the corpse turned vacant eyes and white face toward him. The clang of a bell sounded from behind us, warning of a prisoner escape. Ordinarily it would signal for all available constabulary at the station to chase us, but none did.

Their fear of “the devil” overrode any sense of duty. The dead man pushed me toward the door. We ran, but he stopped before reaching freedom. I stopped too. “Do not let them catch you, child!” “And you?” I asked. “When you are safe, release my spirit.” “How?” “Speak the command. Now go!” The desk constable approached uncertainly, his shaking hand clutching a revolver. He swallowed heavily and pointed it at the corpse. I slipped out the door and into South Grove.

The street was surprisingly empty, but then I realized any passersby would have scattered when they heard the bell. I darted into a nearby lane as a gunshot joined the cacophony. “I release you,” I said softly. “Go to your afterlife.” I never found out if my words, spoken from some distance, were enough to release the spirit from his body and send him on his way. I hoped so. He’d died for me, and I owed him whatever peace was in my power to give. I kept running, not daring to stop or steal anything, despite my hunger. I hadn’t eaten in three days, and then it had been only some strawberries. My last experience at thieving had got me arrested.

It was the one and only time I’d been caught. I prided myself on being one of the best thieves on the north side of London, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to trust myself again. For now, it didn’t matter. I was too intent on getting as far away from the police as possible to think of food. When I finally reached Clerkenwell, I slowed. My throat and lungs burned, my heart crashed against my ribs. But I was far from Highgate Police Station and there’d been no sign of pursuit. I took the long route to the rookery, just in case, and stopped outside the old, crumbling house with the rotten window sashes and door. I glanced up and down the lane, and seeing no one about I pulled aside the loose boards at knee height. I squeezed through the hole and let the boards flap closed behind me.

“Charlie’s back!” shouted Mink, standing lookout near the trapdoor that led down to the cellar. The boy lifted his chin at me in greeting. It was as much as he ever acknowledged me. He wasn’t much of a talker. “‘Bout bloody time!” came the gruff voice of Stringer, from down in Hell. That’s what we called the cellar. It was an apt name for our crowded living quarters where we ate, slept and passed the time. It was cold and damp in winter, hot and airless in summer, but it kept us off the streets and out of danger. “Thought you’d scarpered.” Stringer popped his head through the trapdoor.

His face and hair were dirty, and I could smell the stink of the sewers on him from where I stood near the entrance. He must have gone wandering down there again. “I got arrested,” I said. Both Stringer and Mink blinked at me. Then Stringer roared with laughter, almost propelling himself off the ladder. “You! Fleet-foot Charlie, caught by the filth! Well, well, never thought I’d see the day. Oi, lads, listen to this—Charlie got himself arrested!”

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