Freebie Mondays: Stuck in a Loop (Part 6)

Freebie Mondays: Stuck in a Loop (Part 6)

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 and part 4 here. Part 5 is in this direction!
. . .

Beyond the doorway into the shimmering palace, the walls were shockingly solid. Rather than marble or obsidian, as Azmih expected, the corridors were constructed of simple wood and stone. The craftsmanship was fine, however, and the walls were covered with fantastic paintings that would have been spectacular had the paint not been chipping from several of the canvases. A moth-eaten tapestry stood across from the main entry and the air was slightly musty. It didn’t seem as if the atmosphere had turned foul, merely that the place had not been used any time recently.

Yet the sorceress he sought must have passed through here recently or the golem wouldn’t have brought him here.

Before he had a chance to contemplate further, a heavy thud drew his attention. It was followed by a scraping sound as metal grated against stone. Then a second thud followed.

From the thick, inky shadows emerged a roughly human-shaped figure. Its surface was worn by age, and tarnished in some places, but it was unmistakably artificial.

Azmih’s initial reaction was to cringe away from the thing as it approached; his order had strong feelings about any potentially living thing created through non-biological means. But it was instantly apparent the thing couldn’t be considered alive. It didn’t ping in the pale glow of his active mage vision and he didn’t sense the acrid, wrong sensation that usually flowed from necromantic beings.

This was merely a mage’s tool then. A servant left over when the master departed. Perhaps it was set to guard the entrance, which might explain why Azmih’s arrival summoned it.

Even as the thing lifted it’s too-long arms and extended its spindly fingers in his direction, Azmih straightened and cleared his throat. “Excuse me, fine sir,” he said in his most polite tone. “I’m here to see the master of the house.”

The golem hesitated. Its aged mouth hung open, the bottom half of its jaw slightly twisted on its warped hinges. It looked like it had been about to exclaim something and, perhaps, capture Azmih in its grasp. But when he spoke, the golem hesitated. Something sparked in its dull eyes, indicating he may have stumbled upon an old command.

The arms lowered and the golem straightened its slightly bent back, perhaps wanting to offer a proper presentation. “This way…” it rasped, the sound like shifting gravel deep in its artificial throat. It spun without further preamble and disappeared back into the shadows.

Azmih glanced at the golem he had brought with him. It turned its shining rubies upward as it peered at him in similar fashion. The doll’s shoulders shrugged slightly in answer to the unspoken question and Azmih sighed. He bent, scooped the doll into his arms, then hurried after the golem.

From its perch in his arms, the ruby-studded doll made a series of gestures with its stunted hands and a series of dim mage globes spun into existence in the vicinity of Azmih’s head, following as he moved through the corridors.

Azmih could see well enough in the magical glow exuded by the palace walls, but he was grateful for a proper source of light. The golem clearly didn’t need it.

A thick layer of dust coated the floor and furniture as they passed. Azmih noted what looked like several pairs of boot prints in the entry, but none of them moved in the direction the golem did, and Azmih didn’t have long to contemplate the lingering marks.

The device led him through a large sitting room clearly designed for the greeting and entertaining of guests. From there, they moved through a narrow corridor past several closed doors and up a rickety flight of stairs. Given how unsteady the wood seemed, Azmih was shocked they still supported the golem’s weight. But though it was clearly forged from iron, it seemed lighter than he expected. It deftly turned the corner at the top of the stairs, leaving Azmih to navigate the ascent on his own.

The necromancer placed one hand against the railing for balance, cradling the ruby-studded doll against his chest with the other. The simple motion of drawing his hand along the rail produced a small pile of detritus. Azmih wrinkled his nose at it, but quickly decided to ignore the substance. It was just dust, after all.

At the top of the stairs, he found another narrow corridor choked with paintings and threadbare tapestries. The golem waited for him at the far end in front of an open door. As it turned, Azmih slid down the corridor, trying not to disturb the remains of the previous occupant’s life.

Clearly, whoever used this place hadn’t been along in a long while. Which was unusual, since mages tended to covet their personal spaces as much as their discoveries and protected them viciously.

Actually, he was surprised the golem had accepted a command from an unfamiliar face though, from the looks of it, its creator had shared their abode with other people at some point in time.

Beyond the door the golem entered was a bedroom. The curtains, pulled open at some long ago date, swayed slightly in the gentle night breeze. The base of the fabric was tattered and stained from neglect. Azmih’s gaze was drawn to a large, four poster bed that dominated the center of the room. The sheets that adorned it must have been fine at one time, but now they were as degraded as the tapestries that hung in tatters in the hallways.

He took two steps toward the bed before he caught the shimmer of the mage light against a polished white surface and lifted his free hand to cover his mouth.

A hint of old rags still clung to the skeletal figure, tangling with the remains of the blanket before disappearing from sight. The body was frozen with one hand lifted toward the window, palm outstretched.

A book sat open on the table next to the bed, but whatever had been scrawled across the open pages had long since been scoured free by time.

After a moment of hesitation, Azmih continued his journey forward and knelt beside the bed. He didn’t disturb the remains, but he did bow his head and send another pulse of power between himself and his Death, seeking answers to unasked questions.

Whatever killed this mage, it hadn’t anchored the spirit to the physical location. There was no spirit here, no lonely lost wanderer seeking something it could never find. Much like in the village, there was no way for Azmih to ply his trade. He wasn’t actually needed. Except, perhaps, to convince the golem that it no longer had a master to serve.

He rose slowly, still bracing the ruby-studded doll against his chest, and turned to regard the artificial thing that brought him here. It seemed suddenly sad to him, a thing without purpose caught in a loop left for it by someone who couldn’t reverse its fate. It might be kinder to put the thing out of its misery, but Azmih wasn’t sure how he could do that without creating a bigger problem.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly, uncertain if the golem would even know what it meant. “It seems I come too late.”

The golem’s shoulders seemed to sag as if accepting some realization it had long held at bay. But it made no other move.

Azmih turned toward the door. He was only a few feet from exiting the bedroom when he hesitated and turned back to the thing. “Did your master have any other guests?” he asked, wondering how many corpses he would find if he wandered the remaining halls.

But the golem shook its head.

Odd, he murmured to his silent companion. She was visible right now to more eyes than his, but he wasn’t sure if the golem would perceive her, or acknowledge her if it did. Our mage must have come through here at some point.

He remembered the way the golem stretched its arms toward him when he entered the house  as well as the sense that his quarry was far beneath the ground. He had some idea what must have happened, but he wasn’t sure if the golem would listen to him anymore now that it was clear he could do nothing for its long-dead master.

Still, he eyed the thing, silently praying it would be willing to assist his endeavor. “Did your master have somewhere to keep intruders?” he asked, choosing his words with care.

This time the beast nodded and lurched into motion. It eased past him so that it could exit the room. It led him back down the stairs – this time Azmih did not touch the railing – and back toward the door that still stood open to the night. This time, they took a left at the junction of hallways, and Azmih noted more marks in the dust at his feet. Not all of them looked like footprints; clearly, some of the golem’s guests hadn’t moved as willingly through this space.

They passed through a heavy door and down a winding staircase. This one was  made from stone and covered in thick shadows. Without the bright light of the mage orbs following him, Azmih would have had to feel his way down each step in order to find the path.

Again, he found the golem waiting for him at the bottom. It regarded him in silence for a second, then turned and lumbered down another corridor. The walls were thick here and the ceilings low. The air was stale as well as musty, and Azmih worried he might choke if he lingered too long. But the corridor opened briefly and the mage lights revealed a series tarnished bars fixed between the floor and ceiling.

As soon as Azmih cleared the threshold, several figures shot to their feet and ran forward to grip the bars holding them captive. There were several sharp intakes of breath, followed by gasps of surprise.

Azmih counted eight cells in all, set across from each other in the wide space. They held about two dozen figures in all, though it was hard to make an accurate count with shadows swirling about the excited prisoners.

“There,” the small figure in his arms proclaimed, indicating the second cell on the left side of the room.

Azmih glanced in the direction it pointed and his gaze locked with a middle-aged woman. Her face was lined with wrinkles – worry lines, he imagined, given her current predicament. Her eyes were wide and her jaw fell open slightly as he crossed the room and stood beside her.

“The golem didn’t attack you?” she breathed breathlessly. From the sound if it, she could hardly believe his good fortune.

Azmih glanced over his shoulder. The golem stood on the far side of the room near the wall between the two final cells. Many of the prisoners eyed it anxiously but most fixed their gazes on him instead.

The golem looked like a hopeless thing waiting for some task to fulfill.

Azmih shook his head and turned back to the mage. “An accident, I think. I am used to dealing with constructed things. I made an assumption and it seems to have worked. Cersera?” he added, arching one pale eyebrow.

“Aye,” she replied, still seeming mystified. “Have you come to help us then?”

“I came to find you,” he admitted with a weary smile. “I wasn’t aware until just now that you needed help. Can I ask what happened?”

The mage unleashed a heavy sigh. “Well, it’s a long story. And one I’d rather tell from your side of the bars. Suffice to say, I detected this place during my studies. The discoveries of other mages are always valuable, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell a necromancer.”

She didn’t sneer his title and, for that, he was grateful, though her mention of it did make him shift uncomfortably. A fresh wave of whispers stirred around the room, but it seemed no one was willing to risk angering the golem – or the only man who seemed unaffected by its ire.

“I decided to explore the palace as soon as I successfully uncovered it,” Cersera went on. “A mistake. The golem jumped me as soon as I entered. Next thing I knew, I woke up here.” She motioned to the dungeon.

“By luck of some kind, the golem didn’t seal my magic, though I’ve been careful how much I’ve used it since.” These words were spoken as a terse whisper. “Of course the cell locks are immune to magic tampering, as are the bars.” Cersera grinned grimly. “Which perhaps explains why it didn’t bother neutralizing my abilities. But there are other ways to get out of a cell,” she added, motioning to those surrounding her.

“You called for help,” Azmih murmured, suddenly understanding.

“Tried to,” Cersera agreed. “I’m not sure if I wove the spell wrong in my distress, or if the properties of this place twisted it but… well, it didn’t work as expected.”

“You tried to tell people where you were, didn’t you?”

“Clearly, that message got through,” Cersera retorted, again indicating the other occupants of the dungeon. “People came looking for me but, as soon as they managed to enter the palace, the golem took them to.”

“How did you manage to get past it?” one of the men crowding close to Cersera demanded. His fellow prisoners murmured their agreement that they would like an answer.

“The door was open,” Azmih replied with a shrug. “I suppose you could have opened it but… Well, I guessed that if I asked for the master of the house, the golem would assume I was a guest.”

Cersera cursed. “It was that simple? I haven’t even been able to get the damn thing to talk to me since it brought me down here.”

Again, Azmih glanced over his shoulder. The golem eyed him wearily but maintained its silent sentry.

“When I asked for the palace’s master, the golem took me upstairs. The mage that built this place – or at least, the last that occupied it – is dead in their bed. I suspect they called someone to assist them and told the golem to fetch them. It’s possible help never showed up. I’m guessing the golem has been stuck in a loop since then.

“Without guidance, it makes sense it would default to the task it was given most often. Judging by the state of the upstairs, it wasn’t designed for cleaning.” Cersera sighed again. “I tried to warn my would-be rescuers of the danger they would face, but that part of my message doesn’t seem to have stuck.”

“It’s gone a bit wrong,” Azmih agreed with a weary smile of his own. “There are a few dozen villagers who think you and your companions are dead. They seem to have dreamed of your funerals, somehow, and taken the dreams as truth.”

Cersera rocked back on her heels and slapped her forehead. “There must be something about this place that warps magical communication. Idiot… I should have realized when people stopped coming!”

“Don’t beat yourself up too badly,” Azmih insisted. “Their curiosity was what ultimately led to me investigating your disappearance.”

“Well, thank the stars for that,” Cersera agreed. “But now that you’ve found us, what are you going to do to get us free?”

“A fair question,” Azmih replied, though he frowned at the same time. “I admit, I hadn’t really gotten that far just yet.”

The golem would probably take him back to the door and see him out. It might even let him come back again if he claimed he was bearing something for the master. But the thing was clearly stronger than he was. And if it wasn’t driven by necromantic magic, it wasn’t as if he could drain the thing without great effort. Cersera would have been better suited to such a task and she clearly hadn’t been able to manage.

If he got himself thrown into a cell, the only person who would think to look for him was old Oz. It was safe to assume he wouldn’t be able to work the magic that revealed the night palace. Though come to think of it, Amzih wasn’t sure how the other would-be rescuers – most of whom weren’t mages as far as he was aware – had managed to get in here.

In any case, even if Oz raised an alarm, there probably wasn’t anyone in the city better suited to this task than he was.

“I think I can handle the golem,” the doll in his arm hissed, its voice low and hoarse, probably so the golem wouldn’t overhear. “But you aren’t going to like it.”

Azmih’s frown deepened. The thing in the rubies had been made from necromantic energy, so the necromancer had some idea what the thing had in mind.

“You’re right,” he murmured softly. “I don’t.”

“Do you have a better idea?” Cersera demanded, shooting him an acid glance.

Now it was Azmih’s turn to heave a sigh. “No,” he admitted.

“If you leave-” Cersera started, but Azmih held up a hand.

“I’m well aware that’s unwise. All right,” he added, glancing down at the doll. “What do you have in mind?”

“Perhaps it’s best if I skip the details,” the ruby-studded doll replied. “Do you trust me?”

Azmih considered for only a fraction of a second before he nodded. Since he met the thing in the swamp, it had been given ample opportunity to escape him. There was no reason for the creature to turn on him now; he hadn’t bound it to his will and there wasn’t any place else for it to go. Especially not looking like it did now.

The doll nodded in its turn. Azmih could tell many of the townsfolk who were gathered in the cells were put off by both the way the thing looked and the fact that it could talk, but Azmih didn’t have time to worry about that right now.

“Pretend that you want to leave,” it told him, still keeping its voice as low as a booming thing could speak. “When you get back to the foyer, give the golem the rubies. Tell it to put them in the eye sockets of its master’s skull.”

Azmih chewed his bottom lip. He had no way of knowing if the golem understood death or would acknowledge the fact that its master was dead. He couldn’t tell how intelligent it was actually supposed to be.

“It’s risky,” he protested quietly. “If it doesn’t listen to you, I might not be able to retrieve your essence.”

“Then you will have to rely on brute force and recover me later. I think the thing is hungry for work. I think it will do anything you ask, so long as it seems reasonable.”

Again, Azmih regarded the golem. Was it reasonable to ask the thing to tend its master’s last rites? Was it within its magical programming to understand its circumstances? Delivering the rubies to its master would have been one thing, but adorning the skull with them?

Then again, what other choice did he have? If he wanted to get these people home quickly, he needed the golem out of the way. He certainly couldn’t work magic without it noticing. And he could hardly search the house for keys while it stood guard.

“All right,” he said again. “If you’re sure you want to do this.”

“If you know what I intend, Necromancer, you know the end result is not without reward for me.”

Something cold settled in the pit of Azmih’s stomach, but he could hardly deny the being some form of compensation in exchange for all its help. After all, it couldn’t be happy with the form of the doll.

“If all goes well,” he said to Cersera, “I should be back in an hour or so.”

The mage’s face had gone pale. Her lips suddenly looked thin and she seemed to wear her age more keenly than she had when she first glimpsed Azmih entering the room. “Good luck,” she said.

Then she stepped back from the bars and motioned her cellmates to do the same.

Whatever happened next, they would just have to trust this stranger who had the freedom of movement they lacked.

The weight of responsibility still heavy on his shoulders and acrid in the back of his mouth, Azmih approached the golem.

“I have finished interrogating your master’s prisoners. Will you take me back to the door?”

The golem did not nod, but brushed past him again. Azmih gave way and followed the thing back up the stairs, trying not to notice the worried glances cast in his direction by those waiting for his rescue attempt to succeed.

He embraced the shadows as he moved up the winding stair, momentarily comforted by their heavy press.

His heart began to pound when he reached the top of the stairs and waited for the golem to lock the heavy door behind him. It was in his throat by the time they returned to the entryway. He would very much like to avoid being locked up himself.

“There is one more thing,” he said, his voice breathy because much of his confidence had escaped him. He stopped a few feet from the open door, forcing the golem to turn and face him once more.

Forcing himself to breathe slowly, Azmih shifted the doll in his arms so that it lay on its back. With a regretful look, he reached down and savagely plucked the first ruby from one of the eye sockets.

The porcelain figure went limp in his arms. A spark of light seemed to travel through the ruby, settling in its center as an eerie glow.

Azmih pried the second ruby from its setting and presented them to the golem.

It regarded him in silence for a moment, as if it were going to ignore his request. Then it lifted both its long arms and formed a cup with its hands.

Azmih carefully set the rubies into its upturned palms before resettling the now lifeless doll in his arms.

“Take them to your master,” he instructed, trying to sound stern. “Set them in the eyes,” he added, hoping against hope the thing understood. “If you do that, I will be able to perform the proper last rites.”

The golem stared at the rubies for several long seconds. Its crooked jaw shifted as if it were seeking language.

Azmih wondered how many things the artificial being had forgotten. Did it wish it could forget more? Would it run out its magical batteries if it could? How long had it kept going since its master passed into memory? Was it aware of the passage of time outside of having nothing to occupy it?

“It will be done,” the golem rasped, startling him back to the moment.

It shifted and sidestepped him, moving back toward the stairs.

Azmih watched the thing make its ascent as his heartbeat began to calm. He could try to telepathically communicate with the thing in the rubies, but he feared interrupting the process he had set in motion at this point.

Good luck, he murmured in the vaults of his mind. I really hope you’re right.

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