Freebie Mondays: An Odd Request (Part 4)

Freebie Mondays: An Odd Request (Part 4)

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, and you can find part 2 here, followed by part 3 here!
. . .

Azmih was starting to worry the azure skies and swaying rainbow blossoms dotting the verdant grass of the grove would startle him from the dream state. He had never really caught on to the practice of lucid dreaming, despite the fact that all of his communications with the Lady took place while he slept. Most of the time, realizing he was dreaming woke his mind enough to shatter the illusion.

But then this was no normal dream. It could easily be compared to his night conversations with the god he served, since magic shaped the landscape and maintained its form even when he sensed the steady rise and fall of his chest in some distant bed.

The cool breeze that permeated the trees was a welcome respite from the heavy, stale air that clung to the inn and its surroundings. The necromancer often woke feeling choked, as if something had spent the entire night weight his chest or clogging his throat. The locals didn’t fare much better, and Adelaide’s inn was often choked come breakfast time with men on their way to work eager to wash the night away with a pint.

Azmih turned slowly. Closing his eyes, he enjoyed the soft breeze as it caressed his face and set his white hair dancing across his shoulders. His hair was never bound in these dreams – odd, because he rarely wore it that way. But perhaps it was the desire of his fae companion to see him in such a state.

She was waiting for him when he opened his eyes, halfway between her tree and the rise on which he stood. Her flaming curls were wild in the wind, making it look like fire adorned her head and framed her face. She waggled her bright eyebrows in a playful, expectant way even as her lips curled in a smugly pleased grin.

“I thought these dreams were draining for you?” Azmih said, trying to ignore the way Angela’s eyes seemed to glow in the sun’s bright light.

“It depends on the timing,” the dryad replied, her tone distinctively coy. “And the phase of the moon. It’s mostly full right now, which helps. You were deeply asleep tonight, though,” she added, a hint of worry in her voice. “I almost couldn’t reach you.”

Azmih forced a thin smile to his lips. “I had to expend a bit more energy on this investigation than I initially anticipated.”

“Still having difficulties?” Angela sounded curious now, her expression almost completely serious, aside from the glimmer of mischief that always seemed to inhabit the eyes of fae creatures. “Why don’t you come sit and tell me about them,” she added. Spinning on her heel, she pranced through the grass to perch on a root that jutted from the base of her tree.

Azmih followed more slowly, as if the grass tugged at the base of his long black cloak, weighing him and making it difficult for him to move. For the first time, he wished he could transport his Death here. And not because she would enjoy the green grass and the cool breeze; he could have used her advice.

Angela was most definitely flirting with him. It was in the way her grin grew with every step he took and the way she fluttered her long lashes at him whenever it was clear she had his full attention.

He didn’t know how to process this, let alone deal with it. It would have been easy to write her looks off as a game she played with everyone who fell under her influence, but that became harder to justify when she had to project herself across several miles to make any of the gestures. And as far as he could tell, she had no reason to keep talking with him.

Unless…

“Have you heard from one of your sisters?” he asked as he folded his legs and settled in the long grass across from her.

Angela leaned backward and shook her head vigorously, sending her flaming hair in all directions for a few moments before she settled. “I did check with my source about the sorceress, but they weren’t able to do much other than confirm she’d be able to help you if you could find her. I take your search for magic didn’t go according to plan?”

Azmih barked a laugh. If his death were  here, she would have a lecture and a half about what he had done before crawling into bed to pass out. “Another dead end, I’m afraid. The magic we found wasn’t really worth noting and certainly had nothing to do with the problem we’re trying to solve.”

“But you did find magic?” Angela demanded, leaning forward. Her lips were slightly parted in her eagerness, showing a hint of pristine white teeth and her eyes had that strange glimmer again, as if she knew a secret she refused to tell.

“We did,” Azmih admitted, unable to keep from chuckling over her antics.

“Well!” Angela prompted, motioning with one set of dark fingers for him to continue. “Go on! I want all the juicy details.” Again, she waggled her eyebrows.

It was off-putting, but not so much that he couldn’t appreciate her charm. “Well… it seems someone was unhappy with their families station in life, so they decided to try altering it in death. Someone used some minor illusory magic to change the names on several gravestones, probably to help elevate their family’s status when they moved into the area.”

“Oh, that’s bound to turn some heads come morning!” Angela crowd. “Humans care a lot about what other humans think about them, especially if there’s money or names involved.”

“And  you find that amusing, do you?” Azmih asked with a hint of teasing in his tone.

“We dryads don’t much care what other people think of us,” Angela scoffed. “Though we have all the trees and flowers to admire us,” she added, laying one hand on her chest and tilting her head in a way that suggested a rich lady making her way through a fancy party. “Besides, it’s fun to see what mortals spend their time on. The more silly and frivolous, the more entertaining. Don’t you think?”

“It’s a bit different when you move among them,” Azmih replied. After a moment of hesitation he added, “Though I’m not often welcome in the places where I’d be able to appreciate such observations.”

“Pity,” Angela scoffed. “If mortals can’t appreciate you, maybe they don’t deserve you.”

Again, a weary smile graced Azmih’s lips. “Have you been talking to my Death?”

Angela shivered and, from what Azmih could tell, it wasn’t feigned. There was a dark look on her face for the briefest of moments before it returned to its previous playful expression. “She’s scary your… Death? Is that what she is, really?”

“In a sense,” Azmih replied, choosing each word with care. It was hard to explain to an outsider what his doppelganger truly was, let alone what purpose she was meant to serve. “The Lady created her from my life essence when I entered her service. When my time is done and my service complete, she will bear me to the afterworld as she has borne many others.”

“Scary,” Angela murmured again.

“She often expresses an impatience with the lack of respect and gratitude I receive for my efforts,” Azmih said, hoping that would help the dryad recover.

“Well, she at least sounds wise,” Angela replied, perking up again. She accented the words with another flutter of her long lashes.

He was going to have to ask about how to deal with this in the future. Though he hated to assume the dryad would continue to speak with him like this. Especially after he left the vicinity of her grove’s roots.

“Perhaps you should widen your search,” Angela suggested when he didn’t respond right away. “You said the drought was magical, maybe look for the source of that?”

Azmih frowned as he considered the proposal. “It’s not really my area of expertise,” he admitted, shaking his head. “I would do it if I had someone like you to help me, but I’m afraid there’s really only one type of magic I can actively trace.”

“What about the being in the rubies?” Angela insisted. “Just because it was made with necromantic magic doesn’t mean it’s limited to performing necromantic magic… does it?”

“That depends,” Azmih replied, but he sounded thoughtful. “It wouldn’t hurt to ask.”

“And besides, my sister said the sorceress you’re looking for played a role in the rubies’ creation. Magic calls to like magic, doesn’t it?”

“It does,” Azmih agreed. “I sincerely wish you were with me,” he added. Despite his uncertainty about the fae’s behavior, he believed he could trust the information she gave him. And since he had few allies in his endeavors, it was impossible to overstate his appreciation.

“At the moment, I’m not that far,” Angela replied with a grin and a wink. “Do let me  know how it goes,” she added. “I don’t want you leaving the range of my roots without saying goodbye.”

He didn’t get a chance to respond before the bright sunlight faded back into the depths of oblivion, but he could swear she blew him a kiss just before her outline faded.

*   *   *

“I thank you for your indulgence,” Azmih said as Adelaide followed him through the stone arch at the entrance to the town’s graveyard.

“No, thank you,” the inn keeper insisted with a sweet smile. “You’re the one who’s indulging me when no one else would.”

“You’re the one that stands to lose something if I fail,” Azmih insisted. Technically, the town’s problems were well outside his jurisdiction. He couldn’t be sure that finding the sorceress would help him solve the riddle of the rubies or that he wouldn’t be able to do it without her help. Technically, he would have been well within his rights to pack up and leave. The drought could be handled by a weather worker – he wouldn’t be much help in that regard – and if the local guard couldn’t find a group of missing people, that wasn’t necessarily his concern either.

But he had expended enough energy on this mystery, he wanted to be absolutely sure it was beyond him before he gave up. Especially with a clue to the rubies hanging in the balance.

By the time he slept off his late-night efforts, the inn had been choked with lunch traffic, and Adelaide hadn’t been able to find a free moment until she cleaned up after the rush. Not that Azmih minded; he needed that time to plan his next move. Or determine if he even had one.

The noon day sun was beginning to dip down the western edge of the sky when the two of them finally crossed into the graveyard and Adelaide spent several seconds glancing around before pointing to her left.

“Over here,” she said, motioning for him to follow as she took off at a jog. Together, they wove around several small stones until they came to rest at one that came up to Azmih’s hips. It wasn’t particularly old – it showed no signs of crumbling and little sign of wear – but it wasn’t exactly new either.

Adelaide bent and pulled several new growths of vine away from the name and then shook her hand with triumph as she pointed to it. “Enolt Duskhelm,” she proclaimed proudly. The grin that lit her face was entirely inappropriate for a graveyard, but Azmih couldn’t fault her for wanting to share a long pent up frustration with someone else.

Except that Azmih was forced to answer her grin with a frown. “That stone says Ignis Stonetalon.”

Adelaide’s good humor faded. She lurched to her feet and cast around for a moment before stumbling toward another stone only twelve feet away. This one was relatively new; the patch of dirt dug up to inter the body was still visible as a dim outline amid the newly growing grass.

“And this?” she demanded, pointing to the name. “Is it not Nall Longrock?”

Azmih shook his head slowly, careful not to let pity show on his face.

Perhaps we should have started with this, his silent companion suggested. It may have saved us a great deal of time and effort.

Not until we could be sure no magic interfered with the process, Azmih retorted. “Tonn Flintbreeze,” he said with a sigh. “I had a feeling this might be the case.”

“But… how?” Adelaide insisted, shooting to her feet. “How is it that dozens of us see these names but-“

“The rest of the town doesn’t?” Azmih interrupted, hoping to call attention to the much larger number of people unaffected by this affliction. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “But I know there’s no longer any magic here,” he motioned to the graveyard surrounding them. “So the magic must be here…” He lifted the same hand and let his white fingers brush the air beside Adelaide’s pale cheek.

The inn keeper swallowed hard. “Have we gone mad after all?” she demanded, her voice barely more than a whisper.

Azmih smiled; it was easy to do and not the least bit forced. “No, Adelaide, I don’t believe you have. Someone may have been trying to hide their activities and inadvertently caught the attention of several of the townsfolk instead.” He turned and motioned back toward the arched entry. “Let’s take this conversation back to the inn, shall we? It might provide a more pleasant atmosphere.”

Adelaide hesitated, glancing once more at the grey and brown mottled stone she had been examining a moment before. Azmih knew she was trying to make the carved letters resolve into the name Tonn Flintbreeze. But no matter how hard she looked, she was bound to keep seeing Nall Longrock, the name of one of the missing.

Azmih set a light hand on her shoulder. He was often hesitant to make physical contact with others, assuming it would be unwelcome. But Adelaide squared her shoulders and turned to him with a seeking expression. When he nodded, she seemed to relax. She swiped a stray bead of moisture from the corner of one of her cheeks and turned to lead him from the graveyard.

They spoke little on the trek back to the inn, mostly because Azmih had no idea what to say. Where grief was concerned, he had a bevy of tools in his belt. But when it came to anxiety over one’s mental state, he was rather at a loss. He didn’t think any of his usual reassurances would do much good, and he had little extra information to offer.

They were only a few feet from the door to the Dangerous Queen when Adelaide stopped and turned to him, her eyes wide and imploring. “Is this the end of your investigation, Mr. Azmih? Is there nothing more you can tell us about this situation?”

“Just Azmih,” he insisted, once more setting a hand lightly on her shoulder. “And no. There is one more thing I’d like to try, though I may require some help to implement it.”

Again, he felt Adelaide relax beneath his touch. She gripped his wrist and pulled him through the door to the inn. She didn’t let go of them after they entered the cool shelter of the foyer, instead pulling him all the way back to the kitchen. There she settled him in a table in the corner and delivered two cool mugs onto its surface. Each contained a fair portion of ale, and Azmih gratefully tucked into his portion, both to shake off the heat of the day and to ease his growing frustration.

Adelaide drained nearly half of her ale before she gave him another pointed look. “Do I owe you anything for what you’ve done so far? I want you to know I’m good for it, whatever it is.”

“No,” Azmih insisted, waving a hand to dismiss the query. “You’ve given me food and board since I arrived. I can’t ask for anything else when I haven’t anything else to offer in return.”

“You have told us something though,” the inn keeper insisted. “You can say for sure those people aren’t dead, can’t you?”

“I can say for sure they aren’t buried in the local graveyard,” Azmih replied, not wanting to be too hasty about other pronouncements. “I can’t speak to their current status aside.”

“Still,” Adelaide insisted, “that’s something we didn’t know before. Now we know sure someone is messing with us, don’t we?”

Azmih drew a deep breath and released it slowly. Magic of any kind was often difficult to explain to those with no experience in crafting it, and he wasn’t even  sure what kind of magic was at work here. Again, he felt the need to tread carefully.

Though I also feel the need to point out that was the second time this fair lady offered to pay us.

She did, his Death grudgingly admitted. Though you steadfastly refuse to accept. Besides, she’s an exception, not representative of the whole.

Maybe save your anger for those more worthy of it, Azmih insisted, sick of dealing with his Death’s sulking.

Fair, she admitted, but fell silent after.

“It seems certain some sort of magic is at work here,” Azmih agreed, “though I don’t know if it’s active magic or the result of a single spell cast long ago. The fact that it affects only a small portion of the population indicates a weaker spell – which makes more sense in most contexts. Though I can’t imagine why someone would fiddle with the memories of a small group of people in a way that completely draws attention to the situation.”

Adelaide’s eyes moved back and forth several times as she traced this explanation, perhaps trying to make sense of it all. After a moment, she sighed, downed the rest of her ale and gave him a pointed look.

“This request you need to continue… What is it?”

Azmih opened his mouth to respond, but words momentarily failed him. “I need a… vessel,” he admitted, not sure how else to describe it. “Something inanimate. A carving maybe. But it would have to be person-shaped with distinguishable limbs. I… need to call a spirit into it and in order to help me, that spirit would have to be able to move.”

“Sounds like voodoo to me.”

The stranger’s announcement drew startled exclamations from both of the conversation’s original participants, and Adelaide nearly fell off her chair when it rocked backwards.

“OZ!” She screeched, exasperated. “What have I told you about just wandering into the guests’ private discourse?”

“You and Azmih is friends,” the odd older man insisted, his lips forming a pout. Azmih hadn’t seen much of the man since he delivered the necromancer to the inn, but then he tended to keep odd hours. Oz had been bustling about town selling his wares. Azmih might not have seen him, but he’d heard plenty about his antics.

“It’s quite all right,” Azmih insisted. “My activities here aren’t exactly secret. And I can promise you what I’m trying to do isn’t harmful for anyone. I don’t suppose you have any ideas what I could do?” he added, though he didn’t hold out much hope either of his companions would be able to offer an answer.

“Actually…” Oz took off his large floppy hat and scratched at his head before returning the hat to its perch. “When you described it, I thought a doll maker might be able to help.”

“A doll maker?” Azmih exclaimed. Why hadn’t he thought of that! “You have one in town?” He glanced between Oz and Adelaide, trying to contain his sudden excitement.

“I don’t-” Adelaide started, but Oz cut her off.

“There’s one over on the other side of town,” he proclaimed cheerfully. “Could introduce you, if you like. Bought one of her dolls for my daughter a few years back. Often drop by to pick up some clothes.”

“That’d be lovely,” Azmih agreed, his smile so wide it could almost be considered a grin. He was quickly becoming fond of this odd salesman.

*   *   *

“It’s an odd request,” was all the doll maker said when Azmih asked if she could slip a couple of jewel fittings into the eye sockets of one of her creations. The woman’s eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets when he showed her the size and shape of the rubies; had they not been cursed, they would have been worth a pretty penny. He tried to minimize the amount of time she spent in contact with the stones, but she had to measure them if she was going to make the modifications.

The doll looked absolutely horrifying with two bulging, metal-rimmed holes in its face, but Azmih was pleased with its overall shape. The facial features were delicate, the jaw articulated enough it shouldn’t be hard to move. The limbs were fit with a series of ball joints that allowed them to slide into many positions without revealing gaps in clay that forged them. That should afford his odd companion a wide range of movement; he only hoped the material wouldn’t be too fragile for what they needed to do.

It took several seconds to shove and lock the rubies into their proper places. The doll maker had offered to do it for him, with the assistance of the local jeweler, but Azmih insisted on doing this part himself. While he was alone in the room at his inn and certain no one had an ear pressed to the door.

As soon as the second jewel was fixed in place, the doll’s body heaved a sigh as if inhaling for the first time in centuries. A shiver seemed to move through its form, calling it to life, and one small hand lifted toward the face.

“Much better than you last attempt, my friend,” a deeper, richer voice than suited the doll’s body flowed from its throat. “Opposable thumbs and everything,” it added as the doll wriggled its fingers.

Azmih drew a deep breath but allowed himself to smile in response. “I don’t know how well it will hold up against the elements, but it should suffice for now. I need your help with something and I figured you’d need a body for the task.”

The being inhabiting the doll made a soft, rumbling sound, as if chuckling deep in the throat. “But of course, no one ever speaks to me unless they need something.”

“You know it’s terribly difficult for me to speak to you when I can’t provide a mouth,” Azmih retorted. And he certainly wasn’t going to give the creature in the rubies a chance to occupy a living body. He had no idea what kind of chaos that would result in, nor if he’d be able to clean up the mess.

The rumbling laughter sounded again. “I jest with you, Necromancer. I asked for something and you provided it. To what use should we put this body?”

“I need you to track some magic for me,” Azmih replied, settling on the bed across from the doll. “Can you do it?”

The doll set a finger against its chin, perhaps enjoying testing the full range of its new body. “It depends,” the being said at last. “If the magic is necromantic, I will feel a strong pull. Otherwise, it may be difficult.”

“I have reason to believe the person I’m looking for had a hand in your creation,” Azmih replied. “She’s a sorceress by the name of Cersera Ithbelurn.”

“I don’t know her,” the ruby-bound creature replied without hesitation.

“Well, she must have known your former master in some capacity,” Azmih insisted. “If you were to get a whiff of her magic, might you be able to track it?”

“This, I was designed to do,” the creature agreed. “But you should be aware that the strength of the scent will greatly affect my ability to perform this service.”

“I figured as much.” Azmih reached deep into the folds of his black cloak and pulled a glimmering vile from one of its pockets. “Let’s start with this. I’ve been assured Cersera Ithbelurn had a hand in the potion’s creation.”

He lifted the stopper from the vial and held it beneath the nose of the doll. It was somewhat comical to watch the small figure lean forward and press its clay-sculpted nose to the vial’s rim. But when it sat back it made a soft, appreciative sound.

“If we locate a starting point, the magic should be strong enough to trace. Especially if we bring the vial with us,” the creature announced.

“Very well,” Azmih replied, relieved. “I have some idea where we can start, but we shall have to wait until darkest night.” The last thing he wanted was any of the townsfolk to see the ruby-studded doll walking around on its own.

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