The Seventh Night

The Seventh Night

It’s been awhile since I checked in on Azmih. So I decided I should brush the dust off him and renew his quest to determine what, exactly, this being trapped in rubies is. I came up with a delightful little scene and set about writing it down.

Seven pages later, I realized that, while it was delightful, this story wasn’t the least bit small. I split it into two writing sessions, but still only managed to get 2/3rds of the way through the story.

So while I didn’t originally intend to take a brief interlude from my tale of Wandering Mountains, it happened. Sorry (but only a little bit sorry). I hope you enjoy this little side adventure with Azmih as much as I enjoyed writing it!

This is part two; part one is over here!
. . .

Azmih woke to a ruckus in the hallway. The sun outside the window was bright, but blocked by a pair of thick, patchwork curtains. Evidentially, he wasn’t the only patron of this inn who wasn’t keen to wake the morning after their arrival. The fire in the hearth had burned down to coals but, Eliza must have banked it before she showed him in, because it hadn’t completely burned out.

He was tempted to ignore the sound, roll over, curl back beneath his blanket and go back to sleep. But even as his eyes drifted closed, a shill screech split the air.

With a jolt, Azmih jerked awake. The thick quilt that had sheltered him from night’s chill slid from his shoulders and a blast of cooler air crept down his back. Blinking and rubbing his eyes, Azmih shuffled toward the edge of the bed and fumbled for the pack he had tucked under the bed. He had few changes of clothing, and he would have to wash them all while he was here, but he didn’t want to stink if he was going to join others in the common room.

Stiffness had set in overnight, making his legs, arms and fingers ache. It took a few minutes to shake feeling back into his limbs, but most of it had faded by the time he was dressed and ready to peek into the hallway.

The shouting had faded to muffled hisses and muttering, but it was still easy to locate the source. A small knot of people lingered in the far corner of the hallway, clearly trying to push one of their number toward something Azmih couldn’t see. The source of the wailing was a young woman. Her eyes were wide and bloodshot, her face wet with tears. Eliza had hold of both of her hands and seemed to be whispering something in her ears.

The young woman glanced over her shoulder and, for just a moment, her eyes locked with Azmih’s. He must have looked far stranger to her than she did to him. He hadn’t yet bound his white hair so it tumbled in an unruly cascade along the sides of his face and over his shoulders. His clothing was thread worn and badly in need of repair. His skin was so pale it must seem white in the bright wash of sunlight pouring through the inn’s windows.

Eliza traced the young woman’s gaze and started when she saw Azmih standing in the doorway to his room. He hadn’t put his boots on yet, so his feet were protected only by a pair of thick, knit socks.

“Get her back to her room,” Eliza murmured to the two young men who had a hold of the young woman’s shoulders. She paused long enough to squeeze the distraught woman’s hands and then hurried down the hallway to lay a hand on Azmih’s shoulder.

“I’m terribly sorry, dearie. I tried to keep her quiet while you were sleeping, but-“

“There’s no need to worry,” Azmih interrupted, mustering a weary smile. “It seems far past time for me to rise. That was your daughter, I take it?”

Eliza blinked, confusion flitting across her face. Then she breathed a soft sigh, perhaps relieved that he had remembered her warning. “Indeed, yes. My apologies. She’s suffered a terrible loss in recent years and hasn’t really recovered. On the bad days, she seems to lose track of where and when she is. I don’t like to keep her cooped up, especially when we’ve so few patrons. It’s terribly difficult for her when the inn is full, you see and-“

Azmih cut her off by laying his long fingers on one of her shoulders. “You don’t owe me an explanation, Eliza. And you don’t need to apologize. I’m familiar with grief and its effects. Perhaps when I’ve sorted the matter of the grove, I can offer my assistance to your daughter. For now, please rest assured that your hospitality has been more than generous.”

Relief suffused Eliza’s features. Beneath Azmih’s pale hand, tension leaked from her body. “Thank you, Azmih,” she said softly. “You have no idea how many of our patrons are short when it comes to a matter like this.” She shook her head, perhaps trying to dispel unpleasant memories. “I’ll get some breakfast ready for you. Or some lunch, if you prefer. It’s just past noon day. You’ll find the village bustling if you need to do any shopping.”

“I’ll eat whatever’s easy,” Azmih replied. He foraged for most of his meals. Something hot would be a welcome treat. “And I will have some errands to ask about in a day or two. For now, though, I will need to locate the grove you mentioned last night.”

Eliza had half-turned to move down the stairs, but she paused when Azmih spoke about the grove. The color had drained from her face. Tension in her muscles caused her wrinkles to deepen. It looked as though she was going to argue, try to persuade him against his course, but then she nodded. “I can tell you how to find it. But not until you’ve a proper meal in your belly. Come down when you’re ready.”

*   *   *

The grove was easy to locate with Eliza’s directions. An hour and a half from the outskirts of the village at a stately pace, it was tucked out of view of the road. Azmih had passed it the night before but never been aware of its presence.

Despite the dry scrub surroundings and the seasonal gloom, the grove was both verdant and vibrant. Green grass grew thick between the trees. Bright blossoms wove between tangles of tree roots and ivy climbed the available trunks. At the center of it all was a gnarled old tree, twisted with age and heavy with leaves and some budding fruit Azmih couldn’t identify.

It was several degrees warmer in the grove than it was in the area surrounding. Not summer warm. Not even spring warm. But something held winter’s deepest chill at bay. Azmih even lowered his hood and let the balmy breeze bathe his face for several minutes.

A simple incantation revealed the flow of ancient energy beneath the ground. Despite sitting outside Azmih’s area of expertise, it wasn’t difficult to trace its movements. It permeated the ground water here, flowing up through the ancient roots of the gnarled tree, suffusing its branches and everything that sprouted from them. It was clear to Azmih that if the ancient tree ever died, the magic in this place would fail. But he saw no indication that the tree was sick. The magic here had probably never been particularly strong, but it didn’t seem to be faltering.

Had he been connected to druidic forces, he might have been able to converse with the tree, discover the nature of the problem and solve the village’s problems within the afternoon. But despite extensive searching, he found no indication of ghosts or spirits. His silent companion groused all the way back to the village about the lack of sign, probably because it meant spending another night exposed to the cold.

Eliza insisted he eat a hearty dinner and wrapped a bowl of porridge in a ceramic pot for him to carry with him.

“You won’t be turned aside, will you?” she asked as he reached for the door. “Nothing I say will convince you?”

“If you know what I am, then you know I cannot turn my back on a situation like this one. It would lead to my ruin.”

“And those rules apply even when your life is at risk?”

“This situation may not be as risky for me as you believe, fair lady, but yes. I’m afraid that is the demand of the forces I serve.”

“They never make it easy for us mere mortals,” Eliza muttered. But she relented, squeezing his arm tightly before she released him. “Be well, Azmih, wherever life carries you.”

The sun was just beginning to sink below the horizon as he left town. The voices hadn’t yet begun their calls. Azmih walked quickly to keep the chill at bay, and settled himself into the crook of one of the ancient tree’s roots. He lit a candle and slid it into a small lantern. It wasn’t bright enough to light the whole grove, but it would be sufficient. If there was something he needed to see, it was unlikely to be tangible in the first place.

Folding his arms into the sleeves of his robe, Azmih made himself as comfortable as he could. He expected a long wait.

What will you do when you no spirit reveals itself? his silent companion demanded after two hours of boredom.

“You know as well as I do, if no spirit reveals itself in the allotted time, we would be free to let the matter rest. If the source of the trouble is magical, it’s of no concern to us. But you also know as well as I that will not be the case.”

His companion did not answer and Azmih went back to watching the candle flame dance within its lantern cage.

The hours passed slowly. Distant stars flickered in the cracks between clouds. The moon never made an appearance and even speaking to his silent companion eventually wore thin. In the wee hours of morning, numb with cold and fighting the pull of exhaustion, Azmih rose and began to pace, hoping movement would return feelings to his limbs and alertness to his mind.

He made his way around the lantern in a slow, careful circle. Three times to the right and three times to the left. Then the spirit appeared.

Blinking, Azmih scanned her form. She might have expected him to jump or cry out, but he was so used to the sudden appearance of ghostly figures, it barely fazed him. Her hair was the color of burgundy, gathered in a series of tight twists and curls atop her head. Her eyes were gold and glinted in the darkness like a cat caught in lantern light. Her expression was haughty, her lips curled with disgust.

And she was not a spirit, Azmih realized as his eyes traced the lower half of her body. She had done her best to seem like one. But she was entirely too solid. Not to mention some sort of force poured from her like fire. Anger, perhaps, but it was tinted with magic.

“Why have you come?” the child demanded, her voice cracking like a whip.

“To speak with you, it would seem,” Azmih replied, calm even in the face of her outrage.

“Be gone,” she commanded, her voice suddenly loud. “I have no use for you.”

Azmih opened his mouth to reply, but the girl disappeared before he could draw breath. He exhaled, watching the heat of his breath rise in the dim lantern light.

Well, his silent companion mused, this has certainly grown interesting.

*   *   *

Eliza was beside herself with relief when Azmih strode up the street. She was waiting for him in the doorway, must have been peering through the windows periodically to track his arrival. With a soft cry, she dashed the last few feet and threw her arms around his neck, startling him. Slowly, he raised his arms and embraced her in return, shocked to hear soft sobs issuing from her throat.

“I thought you were gone for sure,” Eliza murmured as Azmih stroked her back. “I can’t believe you’ve come back!”

“I tried to tell you I would be all right,” Azmih replied, his voice soft. “I am not without protection.”

“Indeed, I see that,” Eliza said as she stepped back. “Now come inside and eat. I’ve breakfast all ready for you. And your bed is warming as we speak.”

Too tired to resist, Azmih allowed her to lead him by the arm into the common room. After a night of cold solitude, Eliza’s cooking was a welcome blessing and he fell into his bed with a deep sense of contentment, despite the night’s mystery.

The second night was much like the first, except that he saw no sign of the fiery young woman. Knowing there was something beyond his perception, Azmih finally invoked the power of his companion, making her solid and allowing her to search the grove with her other-worldly senses.

“There is something here,” she announced after several hours of searching. “But it’s hidden. Some force has gone to great lengths to conceal the spiritual nature of this matter.”

“Can you break through it?” Azmih asked from his perch near the base of the ancient tree. Lit by the secondary sight of his companion, the grove looked quite different, awash in green and blue and flickering with fae twinkles. The magic here was stronger than either of them had anticipated and Azmih was beginning to think its true nature was the key to solving their mystery.

His companion contemplated his question for a long time before she shook her head. “Our power is strong, but not the kind required to break this sort of wall.”

Azmih stroked the base of his chin. “Then we shall have to wait for another answer to present itself.”

The third night was uneventful, but Azmih wasn’t troubled by the seeming lack of progress.

Eliza still waited for him every morning when he turned the final corner that led to her establishment. Her fear had long since fallen away, replaced by a wild sense of hope. News of his attempts to fulfill the witch’s instructions had begun to spread but, aside from a sharp warning from the mayor, no one troubled him about his nightly pilgrimage. He tried not to listen to the whispers of doubt and desire, unable to face the disappointment his failure might bring to these people.

It was better if he focused on his task and allowed nothing to distract him.

On the fourth night, a suspicion had begun to foster itself deep in Azmih’s gut. So after he settled in for his nightly vigil and the last of the light had drained from the sky, he started telling stories. He had never been a parent, and doubted he ever would be one. His experience with children was minimal and limited mostly to the spirits of those who had passed. But because of the nature of his work, he had a spectacular number of children’s tales stored within his memory.

He drew on them this evening, speaking slowly and steadily to the flickering lantern, telling tales of faeries and dragons, of mermaids and heroes. He spoke until his throat was raw and he had gone slightly hoarse. He spoke until he had exhausted his memory of tales without repeating any of the major themes or variations.

Then he rose in the usual haze of exhaustion and stumbled back to the village.

The fifth night was much like the third. Azmih was content with that since his throat was still sore from his epic feat of storytelling and enjoyed the chance to rest both his voice and his magic.

On the sixth night, Azmih spoke little, but sensed a growing presence filling the grove. It was opposite in every way to the young sprite he had witnessed on the first night. It was warm and curious, as if it had grown comfortable enough to venture beyond its hiding places.

He could have seen it if he tried. His silent companion kept telling him when it moved and where. All he had to do was invoke her magic enough to share her eyes. But he didn’t dare, worried he would drive it away and erase what little progress he had made. If the witch’s instructions were true, the seventh night should break whatever spell held the village in the thrall of the voices, but Azmih had come to suspect the matter was more complicated than that. He might need to spend a dozen nights here if he did not tread carefully.

The village was breathless with hope and delight when Azmih departed on the seventh night. They watched him from windows and doorways, palms pressed together, whispering prayers to every god but the one he served. Azmih pretended not to notice them, keeping his pace measured as he strode through the gates and made his way to the grove. Their hopes followed him, weighing heavily on his shoulders, but he ignored that burden as he lit his candle and settled in to wait.

The grove felt different. Most would have been unsettled by the sensation of eyes peering at them from every direction, but Azmih was far more comfortable beneath the gazes of distant spirits than he was as the center of a whole village’s attention. Whatever lurked here, it was close to showing itself.

He was tempted to speak to it, offer it solace or companionship if only it would open itself to him. But he wasn’t sure exactly how to word his invitation, and worried the wrong set of words would set him back.

An hour passed before the wind shifted. A new figure suddenly stood across from him. This one was ghostly pale, lit at its edges with other-worldly light. It couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. A tangled mass of curls framed the young face and a pair of wide, imploring eyes peered at him. It wasn’t until the spirit spoke that he identified it as a girl.

“Will you tell more stories?” she said. Her voice was soft and polite, her hands folded in front of her. She must have been shy in life, and her parents must have taught her impeccable manners.

Azmih smiled without hesitation and motioned to the space beside him. “Come, sit and tell me which stories you like best.”

The girl hesitated. He was still a stranger, despite seven nights in her grove. But after a moment, she nodded and moved to the space indicated. Though the outline of her lower half was too dim for Azmih to make out what she wore, she seemed to part ghostly skirts and tuck them around her as she settled onto the dirt at his side.

“I like the stories about the mermaids. I wondered if you knew any more.”

Azmih considered the request, racking his brain for a story he hadn’t already told. He decided to cobble the pieces of several tales together to form a new one, hoping the girl wouldn’t notice the overlap.

She seemed enthralled the whole time Azmih spoke, making nary a sound until he finished speaking. “And do you know more stories about dragons?” she said in a rush. “I always wanted to meet one.”

“There are few left who will speak to us lower life forms,” Azmih replied with a fond smile. “But I do know a tale or two.” Dutifully, he told them while the candle flickered and the night ticked past.

When he finished the third tale he paused, drew a deep breath and gave the child a stern look. “Now that we are on speaking terms, it seems important that we introduce ourselves. I am called Azmih. What name can I call you?”

The girl swallowed hard, perhaps realizing that she had spent all this time speaking to a stranger, despite the strict orders her parents had no doubt given her. It looked like she might bolt, a scared rabbit realizing it was staring into the face of a predator. But the moment passed and she swallowed hard. “Isabelle,” she said softly. “My name is Isabelle.”

“Isabelle,” Azmih echoed, deepening his smile. “I wonder if you would be willing to return the favors I have done you and tell me a story.”

“I don’t know many,” Isabelle protested.

“You’ll know this one,” Azmih reassured. “It is the story of how you came to be here, in this beautiful grove.”

Isabelle turned her head, as if seeking permission from someone. When she didn’t find what she was looking for, she jerked her head sharply to the other side, her eyes darting all around. Her companion – the fae creature, Azmih guessed – appeared to have abandoned her and she was uncertain what to do. At last, she turned back to him and said, “If I tell you, you’ll get scared and run away.”

“I will not be scared,” Azmih said. “And I will not leave until you want me to.”

Isabelle considered this. Her expression was skeptical, but it was clear she feared what would happen if she denied him. She drew a deep, shuddering breath and said, “I came to the grove to play. It was my favorite spot. I would talk to the tree, you see. And sometimes, it would answer back. But I used to go home. I had to be there before it got dark or my momma would worry.”

“But you don’t go home anymore,” Azmih prompted when she faltered, his voice soft.

The ghost shook her head. “Not since I died.”

This was clearly the moment she expected him to scream and rise, perhaps even to abandon his lantern and run back toward the village. Instead, he leaned toward her and said, “You died in this grove?”

She nodded.

That explains a lot, his silent companion chimed in for the first time.

“Have you tried to leave since then?”

“I can’t leave,” Isabelle protested. “If I do, I’ll never be able to go home.”

“Who told you that?” Azmih asked a little more sharply than he intended.

The ghost gulped. “Angela,” she admitted softly. “She lives in the tree.”

Understanding rippled through him and Azmih made a soft sound. “I see. Angela is upset that you died. She wants you to stay with her.”

“Yes, but not forever.” Isabelle seemed relieved that he wasn’t angry. Perhaps she had worried she was in trouble. “Once seven people come to the grove, she’ll be able to send me back home. I’ll be alive again, just like you and your friend.”

Azmih’s heart constricted in his chest. It was one thing for a fae creature to adopt the soul of a child who had died in her realm of influence. It was another to give her false hope like this.

“Angela told you that, did she?”

But the ghost never got a chance to answer. The faerie was suddenly behind her, lit by the bright light of her anger, her fiery curls almost seeming to dance around her head like a flaming halo.

“Leave this place, Necromancer,” she hissed, no hint of friendliness in her voice. “I told you already, I have no use for you.”

“Because you cannot steal my soul? Or because I’m not one of the people you’re angry with?”

The set of the faerie creature’s jaw and the sudden blaze of anger in her eyes gave him his answer.

“Both, I see. At least you are a creature of some integrity. I’m sure the villagers you’ve been terrorizing will appreciate that.”

“They deserve worse,” Angela growled. She barely sounded human anymore. Anger crackled in her voice, making it sound as though she spoke from the depths of some fiery pit. “They spilled blood in my grove. Innocent blood.”

You don’t get to make that decision,” the voice of Azmih’s invisible companion echoed through the grove, though she did not reveal herself.

“All of them?” Azmih asked, arching a single pale eyebrow. “They marched into your grove to sacrifice a child to some unseen force?”

“One of them,” Angela admitted bitterly. “But since they all respect that one, they all deserve to suffer. Isabelle was my friend. They had no right to take her from me.”

“Just as you have no right to keep her.” Azmih’s voice grew hard now. He had authority in this matter. Like it or not, the fae creature would have to respect his judgment. She couldn’t banish him, at any rate, not while she held a spirit to the mortal realm.

When Angela did not answer, Azmih’s eyes shifted back to Isabelle. “You cannot come back to life, dear child. I am sorry. There may be some powers that can grant life to those who have lost it, but your fae friend is not one of them. She wants you to stay with her because she loves you and cannot bear to let you go.”

A hint of ghostly tears glimmered on Isabelle’s cheeks. Her lower lip jutted forward and she sniffled as she turned to the fae creature. “Is it true?”

The light around Angela blazed so brightly for a moment, it blinded Azmih. If she attacked him, he would have to act quickly to defend himself. Her magic was probably stronger than his, at least in terms of destructive force.

But the flare faded as quickly as it started, leaving Azmih to blink as his eyes re-adjusted to the darkness. He felt a hand on his shoulder and saw the dim outline of his companion. It would cost her a great deal to manifest her solid form without his invocation, but her concern certainly justified the risk. He allowed some energy to flow between them, but needed to keep the bulk of his focus on the faerie.

“The Necromancer speaks true,” Angela admitted. She sounded human again but bitterness choked her voice. “I cannot bring you back to life, my darling Isa, but I can punish those who took your life.”

That, too, is beyond your jurisdiction,” his semi-visible companion chided, though the faerie paid her no mind.

“There is nothing left for you here, Isabelle,” Azmih appealed to the spirit instead, speaking softly. “I know it is a frightening prospect to leave your friend, but I can assure you that you will not be alone. Where you would go, there is nothing but light and warmth. And there will be companions for you, I can say that for certain.”

“Have you been there?” Isabelle asked, her voice quivering more with each word she forced through her ghostly throat.

“No,” Azmih admitted. “And I’m certain I shall never see it. But your friend Angela knows the land of which I speak. She knows you will be happy and well-cared for there. Someday, you might even see your mother again. You simply cannot stay here, Isabelle. That is not the way death works.”

He could tell the child wanted more of a reason than he had offered, but she couldn’t seem to form a coherent question.

“You would be happy there,” Angela admitted. Azmih could tell the words cost her dearly. Whatever this fae creature was, she must truly love the spirit of this child if she was willing to let go of it. Faeries were vengeful creatures, after all, often greedy and unwilling to part with anything they had claimed for themselves. He had assumed that was why she kept the spirit of the departed soul, but he could see there was more to the situation than that.

“I can help you,” Azmih insisted, risking a step toward the two of them. “All you have to do, Isabelle, is ask your friend to release the souls she stole. If she sends the people she captured back to the village, I can set things right.”

Perhaps, we can even provide proper justice,” his companion added, her eyes boring through the faerie’s.

Isabelle glanced between the three of them, confused, frightened and uncertain what to do.

Angela gazed into the ghost’s eyes and something flickered there. Sorrow, Azmih thought. Or, perhaps, compassion. The fae creature drew a deep breath and pinned Azmih with a piercing gaze.

“I will do as you ask, Necromancer. I will release the souls I stole, though I deem each of them unworthy of the kindness. But only if you will grant my beloved Isabelle one last wish before she goes. I cannot give her what she wants. But you, I think, can.”

Azmih bowed his head. “If it is within my power, I will grant it. But only after the villagers return to their homes.”

The fae creature’s desire to fight him formed a palpable force in the air. His companion began to gather her energy as a counter. But when Angela looked upon the sorrowful face of her companion, her resolve seemed to snap.

“So be it,” she agreed, though her voice had gone cold.

The tree behind her began to glow with an eerie red light. In the branches, six pods began to grow. The skin of what Azmih had first taken for unidentified fruit soon became transparent, revealing six forms, each curled into a different position. Their faces were calm and serene, but Azmih suspected their minds were aware and frightened. The sources of the voices that plagued the village.

One by one, the branches bent, depositing the pods on the ground. Then each parted and melted away from the body it held, leaving six forms laying in the grass.

As they began to stir, Azmih closed the distance between himself and the spirit, kneeling so that his eyes were level with hers. “Tell me what you wish, Isabella. Tell me what you asked Angela to do for you. I know it may seem hard to believe, but you can trust me.”

Isabella looked to Angela, who nodded curtly. A fresh wave of ghostly tears flowed from the child’s transparent eyes. She reached up to rub them away and her hands disappeared into her cheeks. “I want to see my mum one last time. I want to speak to her and tell her that I love her.”

Again, Azmih’s heart twisted in his chest. But this time, it was accompanied by a wave of relief. “I do believe I can help you with that, yes,” he agreed. “I will need a little time to rest, but the ritual is easy enough to perform. Before I do, though, there is one more thing you must do for me, Isabella. You must tell me how you died in this grove.”

The spirit hesitated, glancing again toward her friend. When she received Angela’s confirmation, she motioned him forward. She set her cold lips next to one of his long ears and cupped her hands around them while she whispered the name of her murderer.

Azmih said nothing, merely nodded in response. Then he rose and strode toward the confused cluster of people who had begun to rise from the ground. The night was not yet over, and he expected it to be much longer than the last six.

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