Freebie Mondays: Petty Squabbles (Part 3)

Freebie Mondays: Petty Squabbles (Part 3)

As promised, I’m releasing a second installment of this serial short in a row! Next week we’ll be returning to the regular schedule.

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!
. . .

This time, Azmih recognized the grove as soon as he glimpsed hints of bright blue sky peeking through the thickly intertwining branches. He closed his eyes – though he was distantly aware that they were already physically shut – and breathed deeply of the perfume-scented air. Did the flowers smell so good because he expected them to? Or had the dryad really managed to translate the properties of her haven through their supernatural connection?

Did it matter? His Death would probably have said it didn’t.

“Welcome back, Necromancer,” Angela’s lilting voice drew his eyes open. She giggled as he spun and offered her a smile.

“I didn’t expect to hear from you again so soon,” he admitted as he wove between the hill’s scattered blossoms to settle at the base of her tree.

“You remembered!” she exclaimed, her lips curling into a wide grin. “You seemed so certain you’d forget.”

“My mind isn’t what it used to be,” Azmih joked as he smoothed his dark robes over his knees. They weren’t as stiflingly hot in the summer of Angela’s grove as they were in the city near the base of the mountain. Normally he would have taken that as a sign he was dreaming, but he knew the ability of the fae to manipulate their surroundings, especially when a magic tree was involved. He would have been as comfortable had he actually been sitting in Angela’s grove right that very moment.

In some odd way, he probably was. That was the nature of liminal spaces; they occupied several plains at once.

“You leave a big impression,” he replied, bowing his head. He could tell his favorable attention pleased the dryad. She was batting her long lashes at him now, her eyes shining beneath with a type of mischief he didn’t often encounter.

“Well, I’m glad to be of service. Though if I’m honest, I was hoping I’d get to visit you again, Necromancer.” Her full lips formed a pout and, with a jolt, Azmih realized Angela was flirting with him.

He drew a deep breath, reminding himself during the inhalation that dryads liked to flirt with lots of people, though he had expected it to be a truly cold and snowy day in the deepest depths of hell before anyone directed such sentiment in his direction. Necromancers didn’t tend to be popular, especially not in fae circles.

“You are free to visit whenever you like,” he managed, stumbling slightly over the words. It wasn’t as if he could stop her from intruding on his dreams. Even his Death didn’t have that kind of magic. Then again, perhaps she merely wanted to make sure her advances weren’t unwelcome – in which case, he wasn’t sure what he had just agreed to.

He swallowed hard and swept on. “I also have a name, you know. There’s no need to be so formal.”

Angela twisted her head to one side and pursed her lips, her expression growing coy. “I hadn’t realized we were such close friends,” she purred, fluttering her eyelashes again. “But I must admit I’m not entirely certain of your name.” And now a hint of red crept across her cheeks, the color as deep as her hair, suggesting she was telling the truth.

“Azmih,” he replied, and without hesitation this time. Though he had never minded being addressed by his title when it wasn’t sneered as an insult, there was something about the familiar uttering of his name. It was almost as if it filled a void he hadn’t realized existed until someone spoke the word.

“Azmih,” the Dryad echoed, causing something warm to resonate deep within the necromancer’s chest.

“My kind don’t have many friends,” he admitted, his voice soft, his eyes on the ground. “So we have to cherish the ones we have.”

He looked up just in time to catch a warm smile splitting Angela’s lips. Though as soon as she realized she had his attention, she grew playful again. “Were the old trees right, then?” she demanded. “Was Cersera Ithbelurn able to help you?”

“I’m sure she would be,” Azmih mused, “if I were able to find her.”

Angela blinked several times in rapid succession, her expression completely blank. “She should be in the same town as you,” she insisted. Her tone was exasperated, as if he had just ruined some grand project she had been working on.

“Yes, I encountered one of her associates,” Azmih agreed, suddenly worried the dryad would think he was incompetent. “But it seems she has gone missing.”

“Missing?” Angela replied, perplexed.

“Like the people who came to your grove,” he said softly, giving her a significant look.

Understanding dawned on her face and her expression grew sheepish. “Well, I can assure you I haven’t been taking them this time, if that makes you feel better.”

“It does,” Azmih replied, smiling again. He was fairly sure the dryad had no real interest in him, but he appreciated her trying to make him feel appreciated. “Actually, I’m not sure what to think about this situation. Several people have disappeared from this town. Several of the townsfolk think they’re dead, but the rest have no idea what might have happened. The families and careers of the disappeared parties are completely unrelated to each other and, as far as I can tell, there are no supernatural activities to be uncovered. Aside from the drought.”

“The drought is magical?” Angela exclaimed, rocking suddenly backward until her shoulders rested against the rough bark of her tree.

Azmih chuckled. “Probably. These things usually are.”

“Odd,” Angela murmured. “I don’t sense anything off about it. But I don’t have any sisters down there, so I can’t tell for sure what’s making the land sick.”

“The land is sick?” Azmih retorted, arching an eyebrow.

“If you know the drought is magical, I thought you’d know that too,” Angela shot back, smug again.

“I don’t know for sure the drought is magical,” he admitted. “It’s something of a hunch. But knowing the land is sick might actually help. Thanks for that.”

“Glad to be of service,” Angela purred. “But I wish I could help you locate this sorceress.”

“Me too, as a matter of fact.” Azmih sighed. He was certain the dryad simply didn’t want to feel indebted to him anymore, though giving him a name satisfied their contract as far as he was concerned. “I was going to ask you about it but… I suppose I don’t have anything to offer in return.”

“I’m afraid my hands would be tied in this particular instance,” Angela admitted, lifting both hands with her palms facing skyward. “Without a tree in your area, I can’t really do much. Can’t you trace the magic the same way you did here?”

“The villagers told me where the trouble was,” Azmih replied with a shake of his head. “So I didn’t really have far to look. We can only trace a particular type of magic,” he added, though it wasn’t a bad suggestion. “Perhaps it’s a good place to start though. Thank you.” He bowed his head again. “You have been most helpful.”

“I’ll visit again,” Angela replied with a wink. “To check up on your progress.”

She disappeared after that, taking the grove and the blue sky with her. But the scent of floral perfume remained until morning, along with the sweet sense of calm that seemed to accompany her visits.

*   *   *

We shouldn’t be surprised there’s magic in the graveyard, Azmih mused as he stood among the tilted headstones marking the plot’s oldest inhabitants. There was almost always some kind of magic in the older places, natural or otherwise.

But the spirits here are at rest, his Death insisted. From her tone, Azmih imagined she wanted to stomp her foot, though she somehow managed to refrain. Instead, she crossed her arms in front of her chest, a gesture she had picked up from him. What if disturbing this magic unsettles them?

If the magic keeps the spirits at false rest, then it’s a problem all the same, Azmih retorted. You seem heavily reluctant to do our job of late, my friend.

Doing our job is one thing, his silent companion insisted. Trying to save everyone we meet is another.

It’s nice to have friends though, isn’t it? Azmih mused, taking a moment to glance toward the mountain. From this side of town, the wall mostly obscured it, but it was nice to know Angela and her tree were out there somewhere. Perhaps they were even thinking of him.

You aren’t jealous, are you? he asked, suddenly shooting his Death a sharp look. It didn’t seem likely but, lately, she had been acting oddly.

Don’t be absurd. I’ve said for years I want more of your own people to appreciate you.

They will if we do things for them, he pointed out.

If looks could kill, his Death’s would have struck him from the mortal realm in an instant. They don’t pay you for your efforts.

“What?” Azmih was so surprised, he spoke the response out loud. Luckily, it was the middle of the night and there was no one around to notice. He’d gained special permission from the local priest to explore the graveyard in the dead of night so that no one would think he was trying to rob the graves.

The night was quiet and still, heat hanging heavily in the air even well after the sun had disappeared below the horizon. Stars glimmered in the sky above and half a moon provided more than enough light for him to navigate.

You heard me, his silent companion muttered, half-turning away from him. They expect you to prove yourself and offer you nothing in return.

“Eliza gave us shelter,” he protested. “And food. And that nice pack that we carry.”

His Death turned back to him and wrinkled her nose. Mortals use gold for everything else.

“Not always,” Azmih insisted. Besides, what would we do with gold? We so rarely linger among civilization.

Perhaps we could if people paid you for your efforts, his Death insisted, causing him to shake his head.

“The magic,” he insisted, tapping one foot on the grass-shrouded ground at his feet. “We have to dispel it.

I still think it’s a bad idea, his silent companion protested, her tone sober this time.

“The Lady would expect us to deal with any problems it caused,” Azmih said sternly. The townsfolk weren’t exactly going to appreciate being overrun by angry spirits if dispelling the magic caused such an uproar, but it wasn’t anything Azmih wasn’t used to. In fact, angry and restless spirits were his specialty and far preferable to missing people, living or dead.

Fine, his silent companion sighed. But we haven’t been to an altar in awhile, so the effort is going to drain us both. I can’t help feeling we should reserve what power we have left for things that are really important.

That I hadn’t really considered,” Azmih admitted. He slid his pale fingers across his chin as he contemplated the situation. No magic was without limit; everything had to come from somewhere. The power granted to his silent companion came from the pact he made with the Lady Death the day his doppelganger was formed. But the power transferred between them was finite and needed to be renewed at regular intervals. That’s what the altars were for.

But the Lady’s servants would have been useless if they had no way of renewing their pact when they were far from an altar or otherwise unable to make use of their power.

“There are other ways,” he said at last, his mind made up.

I don’t like them, his Death protested. They hurt you.

“It’s only blood,” he muttered. “Does it really matter when I shed it?” He lifted the ritual dagger from his belt before she had a chance to protest and raked the blade across the base of his palm.

Sticky red liquid oozed from the wound and Azmih tensed his hand to push it free.

With the decision made, and no way to reverse it, his silent companion capitulated, watching in silence as Azmih wound his way around the aged gravestones, smearing the blood oozing from his palm in a pattern on the grass.

It took several wounds to finish the job – the palm didn’t actually bleed all that much – and the lines were uneven and disconnected. But it would suffice. With luck, the magic wouldn’t be as powerful as they anticipated and the drain would be less than it had been the last time he tried something like this.

If not, Adelaide would find his unconscious body among the headstones in the morning.

His Death made a soft, disgusted sound at the thought, but dutifully took her position in the center of the circle. As she stepped across the last blood-drizzled line, her form became corporeal. The effect started at her ankles and shimmered along her entire outline. No doubt to outside eyes she would now look solid – translucent, but solid.

To Azmih, however, she looked no different.

Cradling his raw, throbbing hand in the billowing sleeve of his black cloak, Azmih stepped back and began to chant. The sound was soft, the words formed just beneath his breath, but they would suffice.

His Death moved with a grace that still astounded him, even after watching her work several times. Her movements were fluid as she lifted her arms and slid her feet along the bloody lines on the ground.

Everywhere she went, the blood disappeared, absorbed into her figure even as the words disappeared into the night. Azmih felt a tingle along the cuts in his hand. The pins and needles sensation grew deeper and sharper as his Death danced, until the jagged feeling reached his elbow.

His vision began to blur and his words to slur as magic flowed between the two of them, seeping into the ground, permeating the soil that held the coffins crumbling beneath the tilted stones. Azmih swayed and caught himself on the nearest marker.

For a moment, he was certain his weight finally tipped the stone to the ground, sending them both tumbling into the grass. But after a moment the falling sensation ebbed and the stone caught him, allowing him to remain upright, if stooped.

The magic continued to build and his companion grew more solid with each passing moment. When Azmih’s lips faltered, she took up the chant, forcing her consciousness deeper and wider, seeking the source of the graveyard’s magic.

All at once, the spell snapped. It happened so quickly, it set Azmih’s mind reeling. The ritual was barely complete, the blood on the ground freshly vanished and the wounds on his hand still knitting. In fact, much of the transfer remained unused, a boon his Death could use in the future without the risk of Azmih’s constitution failing in the midst of a ritual.

But why? How?

“Are you all right?” his Death demanded, her hand gripping his shoulder. Already the magic that held her in the corporeal world was fading, causing his black robes to become  visible through the tips of her pale fingers. But it was no matter, his strength was also returning.

“Fine,” he insisted, pushing himself upright. “The spell, what did it do?”

His Death hesitated, then took a step back. She glanced around, the moonlight momentarily glinting off her white hair. Then she shrugged as the last of her form faded. Nothing seems different.

Azmih held his breath. Above, the night sky remained clear. The stars twinkled and the moon drifted through their expanse. Below him, the graveyard’s grass swayed in the last vestiges of the fading magic. Beneath that, the ground was much as it had been before, saturated with the holy radiance of the nearby chapel and filled with a deep sense of contentment from the souls gone to their rest.

So whatever magic had been at work here, it had no effect on the graveyard’s inhabitants.

But what purpose, then, could it serve?

With his vision still blurred and his heart now pounding in his temples with the first symptoms of headache, Azmih pushed off the grave and began to wander among the stones. None had shifted position. None of the denizens felt the least bit restless. Nothing grasped the remains of the magic to make itself visible.

So he began to scrutinize the graves more closely, looking for dying plant life or fresh growth. It would have been easier if he had a lantern but, luckily, his companion didn’t rely on light the way he did.

It’s the names! she exclaimed suddenly, indicating a small cluster of intricate markers in the richer section of the graveyard. They’ve changed!

“What?” Azmih murmured again, stumbling as he made his way to the markers she indicated. He blinked several times to clear his swimming vision, but one good look was all it took.

The personal names remained unchanged. None of them were on the list Adelaide had given him, but he distinctly remembered checking them anyway.

Several of the family names had changed. Where there had been several Snowcrushers and Slatebinders, there were now Mossvalors and Crestoaks.

Something for the townsfolk to fight about in the morning, he supposed.

“This was the result of some petty squabble, no doubt.” Azmih sighed.

A squabble to be renewed come morning, his Death replied, her tone dry. And where does this put our little investigation? she added, both stern and smug.

“Right back where it started,” Azmih admitted as he slumped onto the grass to catch his breath before tackling the walk back to the inn.

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