Freebie Mondays: False Leads (Part 2)

Freebie Mondays: False Leads (Part 2)

It occurred to me recently that I don’t write nearly enough about Azmih. For those that haven’t encountered him before (because it’s been awhile since he appeared on my blog), Azmih is a lonely necromancer who travels the land accompanied by his Death – a silent companion no one else can see or speak to. Some time ago, he came upon a necromantic creature sealed in a pair of rubies and has since been trying to solve the riddle of their existence and what he should do about it. Last we saw him, he was helping a restless spirit find rest.

Hoping to rectify this problem, I recently started this new adventure involving Azmih and his Death. Part 1 is over here!

Since I devoted two weeks to writing notes, I’ll be posting the next installment of this story next week!
. . .

Azmih had long since learned never to trust his dreams. The unconscious mind was a malleable thing, easy to influence. When the Lady came to him, she made certain he knew the difference between idle fancy and genuine contact. Everything else was suspect.

Even dreams of green fields and summer flowers threw Azmih off balance. There could easily be something dark lurking in the shadows eager to warn him away. And then he would have to decide when he woke if the warning was real or some half-forgotten memory from the depths of his past.

But he felt a sense of peace as he stepped around these bright blue and purple blossoms. A little further up the slope in the distance, orange and yellow blossoms wove together in the light wind, their stalks dancing and twining until they seemed to form waves of flame. The soft sound of rustling filled his ears and he glanced behind him to find shifting tree branches swaying in the same breeze. They almost seemed to wave, as if inviting him deeper into the grove.

He should recognize this place. It felt more than just vaguely familiar. But try as he did to recall the name or location, it slipped through his fingers like sand fresh lifted from the shore. He allowed his feet to carry him toward the distant tree because distrust would not fully set in until he woke. While he remained in beneath the bright sunlight, awash in the soft spring breeze, he remained uncertain as to whether or not this was reality.

And besides, trees had never been unkind to him.

He had just reached the shade of the branches when a soft sound permeated the grove. It sounded like a sharp inhalation.

“Necromancer!” the voice seemed to echo all around him, causing him to start and turn in a full circle.

When he glanced back toward the tree trunk, a fae creature stood there. Her hair was the color of fire and wound in a tight set of ringlets as it tumbled across her shoulders. Her eyes were as bright as a cat’s and her lips formed a grin that made her look like an excited child. She clasped her hands in front of her chest; tiny vines wound around her wrists, and the lower half of her arm was dotted with delicate white blossoms. Baby’s breath, Azmih thought they were called. Appropriate.

“Necromancer,” the dryad said again, bouncing on the balls of her feet as she spoke. “You have finally returned within range of my roots! How fortuitous!”

“Angela?” Azmih finally managed to dredge the name from the depths of his memory.

“You remember me.” Her smile became a grin. She lowered her clasped hands so that they rested in front of her waist and tilted to one side so that she could waggle her eyebrows suggestively in his direction.

He laughed. “How could I forget? You helped a mother say farewell to her child. That is no small thing.”

“We made a promise, you and I,” Angela replied as she crossed her legs and plopped onto the ground at the foot of her tree in one smooth motion. “Do you remember?”

“Yes…” he said after a moment of consideration. “I do. You were going to help me with these rubies.” His hand went automatically to the pouch he always wore at his side though, of course, it was as insubstantial as the rest of the dream and his hand passed right through it.

“Come,” Angela insisted, indicating the ground in front of her. “Sit. I wish I had more to tell you, but you may as well be comfortable while I relate my information.”

Azmih did as he was bid, seeing no reason to refuse the generous offer. He gathered his long black robes, lifted them free of the grass and folded his legs in much the same way the faerie had. Then he smoothed the dark cloth over his knees.

It was pleasant here in the dryad’s grove. Probably it was untouched by the drought Azmih noted on his way into town – if the odd weather even extended up the side of her mountain. Fae groves were liminal spaces, half on the human plain and half in the realm of fae. Theoretically, Azmih could pass out of this place into a completely different world than the one he entered from – which was how Angela had managed to kidnap six living people from the nearby town.

Angela seemed in no rush to speak, so Azmih took another moment to note the vibrant green of the tree leaves and the knot of red roses that grew at the base of its trunk, near where the dryad sat. The sky was a perfect shade of blue, dotted with fluffy white clouds. The sun was bright but not severe or hot. Even in his deep black robes, the necromancer was comfortable.

Of his death, he saw no sign. But then it wasn’t unusual for him to dream alone. Unless the Lady summoned them, she often remained outside the nightly wanderings of his mind. In some ways, it was comforting to know she always watched over his still body. In others it was terribly sad; he was unused to this kind of solitude.

“If I remember correctly,” he said at last, “you needed to consult with your sisters about the conundrum.”

“Yes, and I’m afraid they didn’t know as much as I hoped,” Angela admitted with a sigh. “Some of them have trees thousands of years old, yet they were unfamiliar with the particular arcane signature of your gems.”

“It is forbidden magic,” Azmih mused. “That could have much to do with it.”

“Perhaps,” Angela agreed, though she still seemed less than pleased. “In any case, I was able to get one tidbit that I think will prove useful to you.”

“Ah,” Azmih smiled, “that is a relief. And much appreciated, I must add.”

Angela grinned again, pleased with the praise. “You’ll need to look for a sorceress named Cersera Ithbelurn. She’s well skilled in the arts you’ll need to solve your mystery.”

“Cersera Ithbelurn,” Azmih murmured, trying to commit the name to memory. He was good at this sort of thing, but not always when he was asleep. “Cersera Ithbelurn,” he said again, trying to linger over each syllable. “I’m afraid I might need a few reminders,” he admitted with a weary smile.

Angela chuckled, a sound like bells ringing. “I wouldn’t be opposed to visiting you a few more times. But you’re on the edge of my roots, necromancer, so it’s not as easy as I’d like you to think.”

“Fair,” Azmih replied. “Cersera Ithbelurn,” he said again, then added, “I do hope you are well, my dear.”

“Well enough,” Angela agreed, though there was a sad twinkle in her eyes. “A little lonely now that Isabella isn’t around anymore. But her mother, Tabitha, and her grandmother, Eliza, visit fairly often. I haven’t spoken directly to either of them yet, but they seem very grateful.”

“Tabitha was in a state after Isabella’s death,” Azmih replied. “She was stuck, I think, halfway between reality as it was and the time her daughter was still with her. Speaking to her again, granting her closure, helped her anchor back in the reality of here and now.” He paused for a moment, then added, “You should talk to her. She’d like to hear stories of the time you spent with Isabella. You could heal each other.”

“I will think about it,” Angela replied primly, but the necromancer could tell from the look on her face that she was pleased by his approval of the interaction. “It might be time for you to wake,” she added somewhat reluctantly. “Dawn is near, and staying with you through it will drain me.

“Remember,” she added coyly, “Cersera Ithbelurn has your answers.”

Then she was gone and the grove with her.

Azmih woke slowly that morning, the image of green fields and fiery flowers still stuck in his mind. He was hesitant to release it. His bones were weary and his mind heavy with all he had experienced in recent months. He would like nothing more than to linger in the quiet calm where he lacked all responsibility for the waking world.

But when he finally came awake near mid-morning, it was with a name on his lips.

Cersera Ithbelurn, sorceress.

*   *   *

After some discussion with Adelaide over breakfast, Azmih decided against a gathering of the people unaffected by the odd memory alterations. That would draw attention to his presence and he wasn’t sure he yet wanted anyone to know he was poking around. Necromancers still had poor reputations and it was hard to deny what he was when someone took a good, hard look. He wasn’t sure the rest of the town would want this information investigated either. From the sound of it, Adelaide and her peers endured a fair amount of ridicule for having ever brought it up.

So he left the Dangerous Queen that morning with two lists of names tucked into the depths of his pockets. One was a list of all the people who agreed with Adelaide that something odd was going on. The other, much smaller, list included people whose deaths had been forgotten.

Azmih fingered the parchment scraps in his pockets as he meandered down the city’s main street. There was a name stuck in his head that didn’t come from either list. It came from the depths of sleep, he was certain of that, but he hadn’t yet decided whether or not he trusted his memory.

Dreams were finicky things. It was easy to take the guise of someone he remembered, easy to let his mind fill in the blanks so that any message could be made to sound innocent.

One thing was certain, though, he doubted this sorceress had anything to do with his current conundrum. Those responsible for tormenting common folk rarely contacted him to brag about it.

It’s her you should be thinking about anyway, his Death insisted. You spend too much time on these secondary distractions. It is not your job to fix everything for everyone.

You say that, but the issue Eliza presented to us was well within our purview. Had we ignored it, we would have been punished for turning a blind eye on our calling.

The Lady is not as unforgiving as you seem to think, his silent companion insisted, her tone exasperated for once instead of the dead, flat tone she usually used. It was difficult to get her worked up. She must have been thinking on this for awhile.

She is not as understanding as you seem to insist either, he pointed out, though he tried to keep his tone gentle. She saved us once. You cannot expect her to do it again. The gods’ rules are immutable. It’s possible even her hands are tied.

Which was why he had been avoiding the altars. It weakened his Death, somewhat, made it more difficult to summon her for tasks that required her skills. But there were other ways to maintain the bond between them, at need, and it was best not to tempt the Lady until he had real answers.

As with so many other things, changing the rules of his archaic religion was not a task that had been assigned to him in any official capacity. And unlike other tasks – such as the mystery Adelaide had thrust into his lap, it was not the kind of quest he could simply adopt and expect to succeed.

His feet carried him to the graveyard. There was an inexorable pull surrounding places that contained the dead – at least for him. It was almost as if the lost souls whispered to him, tugging him gently in their direction.

Most people thought that necromancers who stepped on sacred ground would instantly begin to boil and welter as their mortal essence boiled away beneath the righteous power of the gods of light. Unfortunately, there was no truth in it. Even those who profaned the power of Death could pass through the holy fields of other gods without fear of retribution. For Death was a goddess herself, and offered protections to those who served her.

Willingly or otherwise.

The chapel Adelaide mentioned was indeed small. In fact, if more than half the city’s population ever attended worship services, they must take place somewhere else. Then again, it wasn’t unusual these days for the church to be separate from the graves it oversaw. Perhaps the city’s population had outgrown this old chapel. An expanded church certainly wouldn’t have fit among the crowded gravestones.

Much like the city streets before, Azmih allowed his feet to carry him aimlessly among the crooked rows of overgrown headstones. Some were small and simple, merely rounded bits of stone carved with names and dates. Others were large and ornate, carved into the symbol of a family or adorned with the mark of a particular god. Many of these larger stones bore the usual quotes about loving husbands and spectacular wives.

There were no restless spirits here. Azmih didn’t need his Death to dance in order to determine that. There was a peace over these grounds that didn’t pervade many such sites. It was almost as if the calm of whatever god watched over it had seeped into the ground, sending all who rested within to peaceful rest.

Another hit against his ability to solve this particular mystery.

Perhaps his Death sensed his ill mood; she neglected to comment on this particular discovery.

With a sigh, Azmih curled his fists around one of the parchment slips and drew it from his pocket. The mayor’s wife would be the easiest place to start. She would have a large stone among the towering giants and the relative newness of the marker should easily draw attention.

Azmih wove his way to the rear of the graveyard where the stones were cleaner of vines and debris and even the names carved on century old markers seemed stark and crisp. Starchaser was the name he was looking for. Nyris.

How a mayor got a name like Starchaser was beyond him, though Adelaide did say something about Nyris keeping her maiden name when she married and how it had caused a big to-do. He hadn’t paid much attention after that; he wasn’t interested in local gossip. But he thought a headstone with a different name among the other nobility should stand out.

Nothing. He found only one other Starchaser, on the edge of the towering gravestone forest, and it had long since been left to crumble and moss.

Frowning, he scanned the rest of the list.

Cloudreaper sounded spectacularly appropriate. It wasn’t among the nobility, though, so he expanded his search. He found a small knot of Cloudreapers near the entrance to the graveyard, but there wasn’t a Linec among them.

Shadowmore did have a dedicated section of clean stones carved with the symbol of the light bringer near the center of the section obviously reserved for noble names, and Azmih thought he might finally have found a lead. But again, there was no Urtana. There were beloved sons and daughters and venerable mothers and fathers, but none of them bore the name Adelaide had written.

He tried Kimmer Greenthorn next because it sounded fairly unique. And he did find a Kimberly which, he thought for a moment, might have been the full version of the name. But then he found a tiny square of a stone dedicated to a stillborn child marked with Kimmer Greenthorn as the father, so that theory flew out the window.

He spent less time looking for Enolt Duskhelm and Nall Longrock because he was certain now he wouldn’t find them.

Either the people Adelaide thought were dead had never been buried here, or he was somehow included in whatever spell kept them hidden.

It would take powerful magic, his Death reminded him, speaking for the first time since he began his search.

You’d think it would be obvious, given the level of calm that permeates this place, he added, agreeing with his silent companion for the first time since they arrived in town. If the calm of the gods lay over this graveyard, it seemed unlikely someone had messed with it. Something like that should have leapt out of the shadows at his Death, even if he missed it entirely.

The mystery deepened. And without leads, Azmih wasn’t entirely sure where to look next. Perhaps a gathering of those unaffected by whatever hid these dead names from view would be necessary after all. Perhaps he would find some pattern in the stories that would push him in the right direction.

For now, there was only one more name to follow up on. But where to start with that one, he wasn’t sure.

Mages were odd creatures. They either wanted the entire world to know their name and strove to make it happen, or they wanted complete and utter anonymity. If Cesera Ithbelurn was the sort of mage who didn’t want people knowing about her magical studies, it would probably take calling in a favor from the fae to find her. And he wasn’t fond of repaying fae favors. He was lucky Abigail had been so willing to speak for him and he certainly considered their contract fulfilled.

If, indeed, it had been her who visited his dreams last night.

Azmih had spent most of his day wandering and as the sun passed its zenith, he found himself reading the names painted on the signs outside the city’s various establishments. Asking about a mage in a tavern would do little good. Grocers probably had no idea about mages either. A blacksmith might, but only if they had worked with the mage before. An apothecary seemed more likely.

Fortune tellers didn’t seem to have much presence here, and Azmih didn’t see any stores that boasted magical charms for sale. But he did eventually stumble upon a potion maker, their vocation proclaimed with a large bubbling beaker painted on the front of their sign.

It was as good an option as he was going to get, so Azmih stepped inside.

Most of the buildings here seemed to be built from a combination of stone and wood that helped keep their interiors cool, even in the middle of a searing drought. Which led Azmih to believe that summers were typical quite hot here to begin with, despite the off-season rise of temperature.

If the potions in this store were properly arcane, some might rely on that heat to remain stable and potent. Based on the soft glow emanating from the shelves behind the counter, he guessed the proprietor was knowledgeable indeed.

“Hello, sir,” said proprietor called as Azmih’s gaze swept the wares stored just beyond the reach of customers. “May I help you?”

“Perhaps,” Azmih agreed as he approached the counter. “I’m looking for someone I hope you might know of.”

“I can’t claim to be well known in many circles,” the young man admitted, bowing his head. “But I’ll help as best I can.”

“That’s fair,” Azmih reassured with a nervous smile. He worried about speaking with people in arcane fields directly; they were more likely to recognize him. “I’m looking for a sorceress by the name of Cersera Ithbelurn. Might you have heard of her?”

“You’re looking for Cersera?” the potion maker exclaimed. Then a red splotch surged across his cheeks. “Sorry,” he said quickly. “I know Cersera pretty well. She’s always helped keep me stocked.” He indicated the neat rows of glowing potions behind him.

“Then you could put me in touch with her?” Azmih asked, his heart rate increasing. Was luck finally on his side today?

“I’d love to,” the potion maker replied, but his tone was glum. His eyes were downcast now and his blush was quickly rushing from his cheeks. “But she disappeared near on a year ago now. I’ve tried every way I can think to get in contact with her but, to no avail.”

“Missing?” Azmih exclaimed. Her name certainly hadn’t been on the parchment Adelaide gave him.

Then again, there might not be many people who would look for a missing sorceress in a graveyard, even if they thought she had died.

“There’s been a rash of it,” the young potion maker admitted. “Every time we think it’s done with, another soul seems to vanish.”

“The city guard must have looked into this?” Azmih pressed; it couldn’t be a coincidence that the sorcerer he needed to find was caught up in this entire mess. And if a mage was involved, that made the entire thing more complicated.

“Oh they still say they are,” the potion maker agreed. “But they haven’t turned up anything. Personally, I think they write all the stories down and just forget about them. There aren’t many places around here for people to disappear, so they might just figure they’re running off to elsewhere. Letters get lost in the mail and such. But Cersera isn’t like that. If she wanted to contact me, or anyone else, she’d make sure the message got through. And I don’t like the idea of something that can make a mage disappear.”

“Me either,” Azmih agreed.

But one thing had become abundantly clear; he was prodding something well beyond his meager skills to resolve.

Yet, if the answer to the rubies was tangled up in it, he couldn’t simply walk away.

2 Replies to “Freebie Mondays: False Leads (Part 2)”

    1. Thank you so much! <3 I try to link to anything relevant but, sadly, Azmih doesn't have any novels yet. I really really want to give him one, but I struggle to get him to tell me a story longer than a couple thousand words. Someday I might just have to tie him down and not let him leave until he gives me the scoop ^^;;

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