The Seventh Soul

The Seventh Soul

Since I mentioned that last week’s prompt was the last one I wrote in 2018, you can probably deduce that this was the first one I wrote in 2019. It was tough, because this picks up in the middle of a plot that I had walked away from for most of a month. But in the end, I’m really happy with the result.

The first part of Azmih’s tale can be found in Voices in the Night and the second part can be found in The Seventh Night.
. . .

The village erupted with activity the moment Azmih strode through the gate with six lost souls in tow. A crowd formed as they marched down the main street. Amid the cheers and shocked cries, figures darted forward, grasping the shoulders of the awe-struck individuals following in Azmih’s wake, wrapping them in tight embraces. Tears flowed freely. Joy chased away winter’s lingering chill. Azmih’s name even seemed to be spoken among the cheers, as if the entire village wished to thank him for his service.

One by one, the brave souls who once tried to rid their village of the night voices reunited with family and friends, disappearing into the throng. Until Azmih walked the final stretch alone, accompanied by his invisible companion.

Eliza waited in the doorway to her inn, as she had for the last six mornings. Tears streamed down her cheeks and, when she threw her arms around his neck, she refused to let him go. She sobbed softly into his shoulders, seemingly unable to summon words of gratitude.

Though he was unused to such affection, Azmih held her until she drew back. Then she stood at arm’s length, looking up at him with shining eyes.

“This town will never forget what you have done for us.”

“Perhaps,” Azmih murmured, all the weariness of the night settling on his shoulders as he spoke. “But I’m afraid my task is not yet done. Do you have breakfast waiting for me again, dear lady?”

“A breakfast fit for a king,” Eliza confirmed, beaming.

Despite his weariness, Azmih smiled. “Bless you. I beg your leave to devour it. Then after I have rested, I will explain everything.”

Eliza nodded and ushered him inside. She must have barred the door behind her, or sent one of her kitchen lads to guard it, because no one else managed to make it through. Azmih ate alone, among the smiles of the Impolite Princess staff. They passed him fresh plates of eggs, sausage and bacon, fresh bowls of porridge and as many cups of mulled cider as he could fit in his stomach. Then Eliza helped him stumble up the stairs into bed.

No one else saw the seventh soul that had accompanied him all the way from the city gate, down the main street, up the stairs at the inn, though Azmih offered it one tired smile as it stood over his bed, watching him drift to sleep.

*   *   *

“You wouldn’t believe how many hungry vultures I’ve had to fight away since you got back,” Eliza announced, grinning from ear to ear as she set another brimming plate of food in front of Azmih.

He had slept until early evening. The sun had been near the horizon when the innkeeper knocked lightly on his door, suggesting there might be a riot if he didn’t rouse before nightfall to join the celebration. Azmih had glanced out the window, noted the coming of night – when his particular powers were strongest – and risen from bed with grim purpose.

“I am glad to have provided joy to those who suffered grief. I understand some of those people were missing for nearly three years.”

“Aye,” Eliza agreed, though the gravity of the situation didn’t dampen her enthusiasm, “and none of us believed we’d ever see them again. After last night, I can’t imagine how people ever drove your kind into the wilds. You accomplish such feats!”

Azmih drew a deep breath and released it slowly, wishing he could share some small fraction of his new friend’s joy. “I’m afraid most of our accomplishments don’t warrant such celebration. We are quite used to delivering bad news, rather than joyful news. And to that end, I’m afraid I must speak with you. The matter of the grove is not yet finished, and is rather more complicated than anyone initially suspected.”

But Azmih no longer wondered at what had taken place along the side of these mountains. Now that he had the final perspective, it all fell into place like pieces of a map, cut and scattered and reunited at last.

Eliza leaned against the counter, eager to hear the promised tale. “So you figured out the witch’s riddle, did you?”

Azmih forced his lips into a thin smile. “I think it was less a riddle and more a cryptic message for me or someone like me.” Though he had no idea how the witch had known he would pass this way. Then again, witches worked magic that was far different from his own. Best not to question their sources.

“But how did you know you would be safe?” Eliza insisted. “How did you know you’d be able to bring everyone back when it was all over?”

“I didn’t,” Azmih admitted. But before Eliza could question him further, he reached across the table and set a hand atop each of hers. “Eliza, listen to me. I need to speak with your daughter.”

The innkeeper’s good humor finally faded. “Tabby? But what does my sweet Tabitha have to do with this? Her loss happened well before the others. Months before the trouble started-” Eliza stopped short, her eyes widening as she made the connection between both sets of events.

“No, no, I can’t let you speak with her,” she said instead, jerking her hands free of Azmih’s light grip so she could raise them to wipe tears from her cheeks. “It’s been so difficult for her since the incident. I can’t let you tear all the wounds open again. She’ll never begin to heal if we can’t all move on. Now that the voices are gone-“

“I am something of an expert when it comes to grief and its stages, Eliza,” Azmih interrupted, his voice soft. “Your daughter has been stuck so long in her grief because she has never received any form of closure over the loss of her child.” No one had told him the truth about the wailing woman who lived on the upper floors of the Impolite Princess. Isabelle certainly hadn’t given him her mother’s name.

She hadn’t had to. Now that he could trace the line of events, it all made sense.

Eliza’s jaw fell open. “How did you…?”

“The witch told your people to spend seven nights in the grove to break the curse. But I am fairly sure the key was seven souls, just as you and your fellows suspected from the start. Your mistake was believing only six souls were involved before I arrived.” He gave that statement a moment to sink in. “Allow me to speak with your daughter and all will become clear. You may be present, Eliza. It is the least I can do for you, considering all that you have done for me since my arrival.

“And if it is your wish, I shall leave the very hour our conversation is complete.”

Eliza hesitated, her lips trembling. She lifted her chin, proud despite the crumbling of her long-held walls. Then, slowly, she nodded, took Amzih’s hand and led him up the stairs, apparently seeing no reason to delay.

*   *   *

Eliza’s daughter, Tabitha, huddled in a wooden chair in the corner while Azmih drew the intricate chalk circle across the floor of her room. Eliza said nothing, though Azmih could tell from the way she kept glancing at the white lines, she was worried about removing them when the deed was done.

Midnight would have been the best time, but neither woman wanted to wait that long. The mayor had been battering down the door of her inn all day, and Eliza worried what would happen if she didn’t soon give him an answer. The mayor was the last person Azmih wanted to see before his task was done, and he said as much, though it had elicited only an arch of an eyebrow from the stalwart innkeeper.

Now he rose from his task and closed his eyes, letting his senses move beyond the inn, to the surrounding landscape. The last rays of the sun still kissed the horizon, but the moon had grown bright on the edge of the sky. He didn’t need windows to see it; he was in tune with the forces of the night via his connection with his silent companion. Twilight had its own form of power. It would suffice, especially with a spirit so eager.

“The time has come,” he said, so that everyone in the room – living and dead – would be aware of the ritual’s start.

Eliza crossed her arms in front of her chest, clearly intending to see Azmih do something. But he stood still on one edge of the circle, and motioned for Tabitha to drag her chair to the point across from him. It took some coaxing from her mother, but Tabitha eventually dragged the wooden chair into the proper position, then stood on it, crouching down so that her arms rested on her knees, her eyes full of fear and suspicion as she regarded Azmih.

Her eyes were red and puffy, her cheeks streaked with dirt where tears had fallen and been wiped away, then dampened a second time. Deep wrinkles were carved into her face around her eyes and mouth, as though she had been unable to laugh or smile for years. Her hair was lank and tangled, her fingers bony as she rubbed them together. Beneath her grey dress, she must be skin and bone. How long since Eliza gave up fighting to get her to eat properly, he wondered.

But while both women’s eyes remained wryly locked on Azmih, it was not him who performed this particular ritual. It was his Death, the silent companion who stalked each of his steps. Tonight, her power flowed into him as she danced from one end of the circle to the other, her cold, invisible hands brushing both women before they swirled.

Slowly, her form coalesced from the shadows. First as a hint of movement, a breath of wind and chill. Then as the outline of a figure, arms waving, legs prancing. And at last, she became as solid as Azmih. The next time her fingers brushed Tabitha’s forehead, the young woman gasped and grasped her mother’s shoulders.

Eliza, too, seemed startled, and she took hold of Tabitha’s wrist, as if to fortify them both against the intruder.

“Fear not,” Azmih said softly. Sweat beaded his forehead now and streaked his cheeks, but he ignored it. The bulk of the work was done by the woman in the circle. He was merely a channel. “For all the time you have known me, my Death has been with me, though never could your eyes catch her. Her arms may carry none but me, so she cannot cause you harm.”

Neither woman relaxed, though both stared at the pale woman as she came to a halt.

She was Azmih’s twin in every way, aside from their sex. Her hair was straight and snowy white. Her skin was pale, translucent even in her solidest form. She wore a cloak of black, though she had tied it high to prevent herself from tripping while she danced. Her eyes were crystal blue, and surprisingly compassionate, though she did not usually deal much with human emotions. That was his job.

“I am the bridge between the living and the dead,” Azmih’s Death announced. She had no other name, so there would be no point in trying to offer an introduction. “Through me, contact between the two realms may be facilitated. That is why Azmih has summoned me into your presence today.”

Her eyes locked on a space beside the Necromancer and both women’s eyes followed. Tabitha stepped down from her chair with one foot now, eagerness and hope filling her face instead of fear.

Azmih raised one hand, cautioning her back. With help, Eliza slid the chair back so that the two of them huddled on the edge of the circle. Then he nodded to his Death and she resumed her dance.

“The time has come,” she said, and Azmih nodded to the figure beside him.

“Walk through the circle, child. Take my Death’s hand, and the promise I made to you will be fulfilled.”

Isabelle, small and fragile, and barely visible to the Necromancer’s otherworldly vision, nodded and did as she was bid.

The moment her fingers locked with the woman in the circle, she became visible to the room’s other occupants. Both women gasped. Tears filled their eyes and spilled freely from them. Tabitha fell to her knees and extended her arms, reaching for the child she would never again be able to hold.

Isabelle rushed toward her, but their arms passed through each other, and Tabitha hugged empty air, her sorrowful sobs filling the room.

“What magic is this?” Eliza demanded, breathless. “How? How is it possible?”

“Isabelle asked to speak to her mother one last time,” Azmih said, tired already, but determined to let the two have their final conversation. “I promised if her friend released the souls she had stolen, I would make that wish come true.”

“Your friend?” This was spoken by Tabitha, and Eliza was clearly surprised, as if her daughter hadn’t spoken coherent words in ages.

“Angela,” Isabelle said softly, ghostly tears flowing from her wide eyes. “She lives in the tree in the grove. I used to go and visit her before I died. She told me never to tell you, Momma, because I’d get in trouble. But she was kind to me. Even after I died. She kept me safe, and warm. She told me stories. She wanted to send me back to you but… but she couldn’t.”

Tabitha glanced from the ghostly form of her daughter to Azmih and back again.

“Angela is a fae creature,” Azmih explained. “A dryad, most likely, since her life seems tied to the tree in the center of the grove. It was she who stole the souls of the people who tried to break the curse. Out of some misguided attempt to avenge the death of your daughter, it would seem. I convinced her there might be another way.”

“I will have to thank this Angela,” Tabitha said, forming each word carefully, as if they were alien to her tongue. “I owe her a great debt for taking care of you such a long time.”

“So I’m not in trouble?” Isabelle seemed greatly concerned about the answer to this question.

“Of course not,” her mother replied, a hint of a sob escaping her lips at the same time. “But tell me, please, light of my life, how was it you died? I have tormented myself day after day since it happened, for I am certain it must be my fault.”

“Your fault?” Isabelle exclaimed, horrified at the suggestion. “But it was the mayor man, Momma. The one who dresses all in black with grey on the sides of his hair. He came into the grove while I was playing and he…”

Azmih’s Death interrupted the child, determined that she should not have to speak the words twice. Thus did his usually silent companion relate the story Isabelle had given them the night before of the twisted brutality that led to her death and Angela’s anger.

Tabitha’s mouth hung open by the end, a fire of vindication now burning beneath the sorrow in her eyes. And Eliza seemed alight with furry. If it were possible for a human without mage-talent to ignite a flame with their mind, she would certainly have done so this moment.

“It is my greatest regret,” Azmih said when his Death finished speaking, “that I cannot reunite the two of you for long. But this way, at least, the two of you may say goodbye.”

Grief welled through Tabitha’s throat as her sobs renewed. She folded her hands in front of her and stared one last time into the face of her lost child.

“I love you still, Isabelle. You were the light of my life and the sun has not graced me since you left. You are not to blame for what  happened. Never think it. And nothing you have told me makes me love you any less. Please know that I will love you forever, and no amount of time passing will ever dull my love’s strength.”

Sniffling and wiping ghostly tears from her cheeks, Isabella nodded and summoned some manner of smile to her transparent lips. “I love you, Momma. I’m sorry I had to leave you, but I’m glad I got to see you again.”

She turned then to Azmih, her expression tentative and timid. “Will we ever see each other again, Momma and me?”

“It is a distinct possibility. If you meet again in this life, you may not know each other when you meet, but you will be drawn together none-the-less. If you meet again on the other side, you will know and remember everything you shared, though it may take longer.”

“I only want you to be happy,” Tabitha declared. “Nothing else matters to me.”

Isabella nodded, her smile growing stronger. “Then I’m ready,” she declared, glancing up at Azmih’s death.

The woman smiled back at her, waited for Azmih’s nod, then resumed her dance. This time, when she reached for Isabella, the child passed through her and vanished from everyone’s sight. By then, the circle was gone, it’s power draining the lines from the floor until none remained. Azmih’s Death returned to his side, though she would be invisible to his companions again within the hour.

“This,” Eliza breathed, “is more than I ever could have hoped for. You have given my child back to me, given us both the closure we could never have achieved otherwise. And justice. Yes, justice will be served.”

“It is outside the realm of my authority,” Azmih replied, leaning against the woman beside him to keep upright. “But if there is anything I can do to help, please let me know.” Justice for the living was a job for the living, after all, and Azmih mostly oversaw the dead. Still, he got the impression he would not be able to leave until it was done.

*   *   *

They would not sing his praises when he left. They might not even remember his name in a year. But the atmosphere surrounding the small mountain town was distinctly different the day he departed. Sadness had given way to joy, then to anger. But when outrage had been fulfilled, the tension of the last weeks faded and the town returned to the way it must have been before the voices came.

Eliza insisted that Azmih stay in the inn until the matter of the mayor was dealt with, refusing to allow him to pay a single penny. The morning he declared he must leave, she presented him with a small mountain of gifts. She started with his own clothing, which she had slipped right from beneath his nose, cleaned and repaired and folded into a tight bundle. Next came several fresh replacements, thick to ward off the winter chill. The last was a fresh pack, bigger than the last, with more compartments than he could ever fill, and a fresh bedroll tied to the base.

It was beyond what he deserved, but he couldn’t convince the innkeeper otherwise.

“Take it,” she insisted. “It’s from all of us, though mostly me and Tabby. Without you, we might never have known what truly happened.”

Eliza’s daughter had transformed almost overnight. She had a long way to walk to escape the shadows of her grief, but she no longer wandered the upper halls wailing for her lost child. She ate two meals, Eliza said, when it used to be difficult to coax a single bowl of broth down her throat before day’s end. She still didn’t sleep well, but she left her room, cleaned, dressed and interacted with the inn’s patrons.

They were small steps, but eventually they would carry her down the path to healing. It warmed Azmih’s heart, though he wished he hadn’t had to deliver such sad and horrifying truth.

It had taken nearly three weeks to settle the matter of the mayor, though Azmih had mostly stayed out of it. He had been forced to summon his Death, in the end, to testify at the trail, partly at her insistence. But the judgment and the sentence he had left to the villagers. He would not be accused of the crimes committed by his ancestors. He was a facilitator, not a judge.

“I cannot properly express my gratitude, dear lady,” Azmih replied, a hint of heat singing his eyes as Eliza embraced him one last time. “Except to say that I will miss you while I’m on the road.”

“Good,” Eliza replied, grinning even as a pair of fat tears escaped the edges of her eyes. “Then you will never forget that there will always be a room available for you at this inn. And I hope to see you fill it again soon.”

“I can make no promises,” Azmih replied, though he smiled when he said it. “But I will do my best.”

No crowed gathered to see him off, though many of the villagers waved or called to him as he passed, a few stopping him to offer one last round of thanks.

He felt light, for once, as he set off down the side of the mountain. The first hints of spring filled the air, the promise of warmer weather and the renewal of life to a dead land.

He hadn’t intended to stop when he reached the grove, but a flash of fire caught his eye. Angela looked every bit as radiant in daylight as she had during the depths of his watch. Azmih nodded to her, bowing his head a little deeper than usual.

“I thank you,” she said, her voice regal though it rang with sincerity. “You delivered on your promise, and more.”

“I did my duty, though I never consider it an imposition to help a lost soul to rest.”

Angela bowed her head, spilling her fiery curls across her shoulders. “I will not forget your service, Necromancer. My gratitude will far outlive that of the villagers.”

“I appreciate that, though you owe me nothing.”

A smirk split the fae creature’s lips. “Have you never heard that it is unwise to reject the favor of the fae?”

Azmih chuckled “At least as often as I have heard that it is unwise to accept the favors of the fae.”

For a moment, Angela’s lips twisted with disdain. Then she threw back her head and laughed. “If there is ever something myself or my sisters can do for you, please do not hesitate to ask.”

Azmih did hesitate, but only for a moment. His fingers strayed to the pouch of rubies that had set him on this path from the start. “Actually, there may be something.” He lifted the pouch, unfastened it, and spilled the rubies into his hands. “If you could help me identify these, I would be in your debt.”

Angela frowned and extended her hands. Azmih deposited the rubies into them and she shifted them from palm to palm, as if weighing them. At length, she handed them back. “Indeed, I do believe I can assist you in this matter, Necromancer. Though it may require me to consult with my sisters.”

“I am in no rush,” Azmih replied, nodding his acceptance.

Pleased, the fae creature began to retreat into the confines of her grove, her outline becoming hazy as she did so. “Then it shall be done. But make no mistake; this small task is not nearly enough to settle our debt.”

She was gone before Azmih could protest, though he was not so foolish he couldn’t see the benefit of all the allies he had suddenly gained.

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