Freebie Mondays: The Night Palace (Part 5)

Freebie Mondays: The Night Palace (Part 5)

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!
. . .

Azmih cringed as the shifting of his weight produced a sharp creak from the wooden floorboard beneath his right foot. In the dark stillness of the inn, every tiny sound seemed amplified. Even the rapid pounding of his heart and soft intake of his breath seemed loud enough to rouse the entire patronage without the floor adding its protest.

The necromancer paused for several long seconds, pressing the doll he cradled in his left arm so tightly against his chest, he worried his otherworldy companion would cry out in protest. Luckily, he chose to remain silent.

When Azmih heard no stir among the hallways, he continued his descent, testing the remainder of the stairs carefully before committing any amount of weight to his advance. Though it was only a few hours past dusk, and this city wasn’t particularly devoid of night life, most of its inhabitants  had already sought their beds in anticipation of an early start to the following day. No one was likely to look askance at him if he kept the doll’s face hidden, since  it was large enough to be mistaken for a child without proper light. And he had already made arrangements with the potion seller to gain access to his partner’s workspace.

When he reached the base of the stairs, Azmih was ready to dart around the corner and across the small lobby, but the soft clearing of a throat froze him in place. He was so startled, he almost dumped the burden from his arms.

His thoughts shot first to the town guard, though he had no idea what they would be doing at the Dangerous Queen so late at night. Several  had already caught him skulking around the graveyard around this time and most had long since grown used to his presence, but that didn’t mean they would allow his nighttime activities to continue.

Heart pounding like a wild beast in his throat, Azmih pivoted and turned toward the flair of light that greeted his arrival. The face illuminated by the dancing flames was familiar, the smile splitting the worn lips friendly and more than a little smug.

“Leaving, are ye?” old Oz demanded, flipping the wide brim of his hat upward so he could get a clearer look at Azmih’s shadow-shrouded face.

“The inn?” Azmih asked nervously, uncertain why his odd friend would jump him in the middle of the night when he had seemed so generous up to this moment. “Yes,” he admitted. The town, maybe.

“But for good?” Oz pressed as he advanced.

“I should hope not,” Azmih replied without hesitation. Half his things were still in his room and he would be hard pressed to get along without them should a failed task drive him abroad.

Oz  unleashed a sigh  of relief and Azmih suddenly realized the man had been wound tight as a spring for the duration of his short interrogation. “You’ve had me mighty worried since the dollmaker,” he admitted, scratching at the stubble that had taken residence on his face since his arrival in the city. “You seem to have gotten yourself mixed up in something.”

“Sadly, that is the nature of my existence,” Azmih admitted, smiling as the tension leaked from his own muscles. He wasn’t used to people worrying about him, but he would take that over an unexpected knife to the back.

“It isn’t dark magic, is it?” Oz demanded, nodding toward the bundle in his arms.

“I’m not certain the exact nature of what I’m dealing with just yet,” Azmih admitted, seeing no reason not to be honest.

Perhaps curious about the attention that had been drawn to it, the doll shifted in his hands, turning the slightly glowing rubies in the direction of the traveler.

Oz danced two steps backward, startled by the unexpected movement. But to his credit, he didn’t cry out. And after a moment to regain his wits, he inched a step forward and leaned toward the  small frame.

“It some kind of golem, is it?” he asked, his voice choked with awe.

“Something like that,” Azmih agreed, surprised. “I had no idea you’d be familiar with such things.”

“I ain’t never seen one with my own  eyes ‘afore,” Oz admitted, shaking his head. “But if you get around as much as I  do, you hear stories. And this… thing  is going to help you solve what’s been troubling Addy?”

“That is the goal,” Azmih agreed, uncertain where his fellow traveler might be headed with this.

“Well then, it’s settled,” Oz announced, straightening his hat again. “Where do we start?”

“We?” This amused exclamation emitted from the doll in Azmih’s arms.

Oz bristled and Azmih imagined every hair beneath his hat standing on end. “I might not know much about the supernatural,” he admitted after a moment, waving toward the doll that had just spoken the question. “But I know Addy. A kinder, gentler soul I’ve never met. If something’s troubling her, and if you’re working on it, then that deserves some attention, I think. I’d like to see it sorted before I leave, and the road is callin’, if you ken.”

“I ken well enough,” Azmih agreed. “And I appreciate your concern, my friend, but I’m afraid there might not be much you could do to help.” And if he caught sight of Azmih’s invisible companion, it might just change his mind about this whole affair. He was pretty sure he was going to need her help unraveling this mystery.

“No, now don’t be modest at a time like this. I’ve seen  you toiling alone several nights running. And you came back pretty shabby not too long ago. Even if alls I can do is give you a ride, it seems fair enough. Where we off to?” He  waggled his eyebrows in an expectant fashion.

Azmih wouldn’t be surprised to find Oz’s horses already hitched to his cart and waiting just outside the front door. If he listened hard  enough, he thought he could almost hear them pawing at the cobbles and shaking in their harnesses.

“The potion seller’s place,” he admitted after a moment. Having quick transportation might just prove useful.

“All right,” Oz agreed as he sidestepped the necromancer and moved toward the door, “I’ll have you there in two shakes of a lambs tail, yes indeed!”

*   *   *

It turned out that neither the time of night, nor the presence of a doll that could move of its own accord, daunted Oz enough to keep him from chatting Azmih’s ear off on the short ride across town. Azmih didn’t mind; he didn’t often have people so freely willing to chat about mundane occurrences. But he thought his supernatural companions were quite bored by the time they reached the potions shop.

“You can wait out here if you like,” Azmih said as he scooped the doll back into his arms. “I’m not sure how long I’ll be-“

“Nonsense,” Oz replied with a flick of his wrist. He hopped out of the cart and secured his horses leads against one of the nearby posts. “You’re probably going somewheres else, ain’t ye?”

“Probably,” Azmih admitted. “But I’m not sure you’ll really enjoy what’s likely to happen inside.”

“Odd seems to  be something people have to expect around you,” Oz said with another shrug. “How bad can it be?”

Azmih pursed his lips but decided not to push. He turned down the side alley that straddled the squat shop and knocked four times in an odd rhythm against a door set into the shop’s rear.

After a moment of hesitation, a lock slid aside and the door creaked open on rusty hinges. A pair of eyes appeared in the door, illuminated by a candle or a lantern set somewhere behind them. Then the potion seller stepped back and threw the door wide.

Azmih darted across the threshold and Oz followed so closely, he nearly stepped on Azmih’s dark robes. Perhaps he feared being shut out if he didn’t move fast.

The potion seller slid the door closed in Oz’s wake and flipped the lock back into place, testing it was secure before he turned to his strange companions.

There were actually several candles placed throughout the room, each at various stages of burnt, some of them obviously only carried into the space a few hours before. For the most part, there wasn’t much to see. A low desk was crammed into one corner, covered with papers and jars. Behind the potion seller, a second door led toward the front of the shop – or a stock room, perhaps, depending on how this place was laid out.

“I am sorry to bother you at this hour,” Azmih said when no one spoke. “But I do appreciate your assistance with this matter. Hopefully we won’t be long.”

The shop keeper shook his head. “Pay it no mind. Getting Cersera back is worth any amount of trouble. I’m nearing the end of her stock, and I’m not the only one in town who relies on her services.”

Azmih nodded, not wanting to pry. “Did she have a workspace?” He turned toward the squat desk.

“She had a more personal one in her house,” the shop keep admitted. “But when she worked here, she did use the desk.”

Azmih crossed the small room in two steps and plunked the doll onto the desk chair. The potion seller shot backward, pressing his back to the far wall when one of the porcelain arms lifted of its own accord, but he managed not to scream. Azmih had warned him that he would have to use magical means to track his friend, though he hadn’t wanted to go into specifics, lest the man bar him from his shop.

“It’s okay,” the necromancer reassured softly. “This is no ghost or restless spirit, I assure you. Merely a bit of magic designed to track other magic.” More, neither of the other men needed to know. “I’d start with the papers,” he added, directing this toward his small friend. “There should be a lot of traces on them.”

But the ruby-studded doll ignored him, going straight for one of the jars instead. It picked the glass container up and shook it gently.  The swirl of light caused by the disturbance of the magic held within was reflected on the polished surface of the ruby eyes. Then the doll popped the jar open and dipped one delicate finger inside. When the finger lifted, the ruby entity smeared the glowing goop on its tiny lips.

“There’s enough here,” it said after a moment, the voice too large and deep to have come from within the doll’s tiny chest.

Even though Oz had heard the thing speak once before, he took a step backward, closer to the shop keep, who was still pressed tensely against the far wall.

“Good,” Azmih replied, trying to ignore the growing tension behind him. “Do you need me to take you somewhere else to start seeking?”

“A moment,” the ruby entity replied. The tiny doll face pressed close to the desk and Azmih heard a rush of air that seemed to indicate a noisy inhalation. The doll lifted its stubby arms and crawled across the desk, pressing its face against several of the papers sprawled across it, before it finally dropped down to the floor.

Azmih knelt, trying to get a better idea of what the doll might be looking for, but by the time he got his head on a level with the desk’s underside, the ruby entity had already found the switch.

There was a soft click followed by a high-pitched hum. Then a small portion of the floor slid down, forming a ramp. The opening lay beneath the desk, which was probably why no one had ever noticed seams in the floor, but Azmih detected enough magic in the vicinity to determine the mechanism was at least partially arcane.

Even as the necromancer  poked his head into the opening, the ruby entity slid the doll’s head beside him. Together, they peered into the bright illumination below the floor.

“Looks like Cersera kept some of her magical components here,” Azmih announced as he straightened. If he was going to go down there, he should probably move the desk. Otherwise he was bound to knock several things to the floor. “You might even find some recently finished potions down there,” he added, casting a glance over his shoulder at the shop keep.

“Well, I’ll be,” he murmured, though he seemed to stunned to offer much more of a response.

“Is there a tunnel down there?” Oz demanded, taking one determined step forward. “Are you going to follow it?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Azmih admitted. “Give me a moment.”

The ruby entity had already managed to lower its small body to the ground. The drop between floors wasn’t great, but Azmih found he could stand without difficulty once he was in the hidden room. So the entire space was likely ensorcelled. He glanced around, noting the ordered arrangement of items on shelves. There were bundles of dry herbs hanging along one wall. Beneath them were jars of raw ingredients. Arrayed on the other shelves were potions at various stages of mix, as well as a few other experiments the sorceress had likely conducted in this workshop. Azmih didn’t sense anything necromantic in the air, and that allowed him to relax.

“There is a tunnel,” the ruby entity announced, indicating a particularly dark portion of shadow on the far side of the room.

Azmih took a moment to allow some of the excess power he had summoned a few days before to flow between himself and his silent companion. She swept across the room, but her passage left no trace of dangerous magic. Only when he was satisfied he wouldn’t be setting off any traps did Azmih sweep forward and peer into the dark tunnel.

With a waggle of his fingers, he summoned a mage light to float above his palm.

The passage beyond the workroom was carved from stone. Something in the distance glimmered damply, but Azmih got the impression he wouldn’t find anything particularly dangerous or exciting within it.

“Which direction does it go?” he asked softly.

It was his silent companion that answered first. North, she said.

Azmih shuffled back to the ramp and traversed it until his head returned to the room above. “There is a passage here, Oz, as you said. I’m going to take it, but I think you should go back to the inn.”

“Nonsense,” Oz insisted, shaking his head vigorously. He must have had some time to steel himself while Azmih was below. “Which direction does it go? If it leads out of the city, I can meet you there.”

Azmih hesitated a moment. He shouldn’t get another person involved in a hunt that could potentially be dangerous. But without knowing how far he had to go, he couldn’t say how useful the cart would be.

“Fine,” he agreed after a moment. “The passage goes north from here, though I won’t be able to warn you if it diverts. If you don’t hear from me in two hours…”

“I’ll go back to the inn and tell Addy,” Oz replied, bolting toward the door before Azmih could change his mind.

Azmih watched him return to the darkness outside and swallowed a sigh. He didn’t always make the best decisions when it came to his work, but he was relatively sure that there was no necromancy involved with this situation, so it should be fine to allow the man to accompany him. Though knowing his luck, it would turn out they were dealing with a powerful rogue sorcerer he was ill-equipped to counter.

But it was too late now, he could already hear Oz’s horses clip-clopping down the street. He turned his attention back to the potion seller and smiled weakly. “Thanks again for your time.”

*   *   *

The tunnel turned out to be part of the city’s sewer network. It was possible Cersera had forged the connection to allow her to move easily throughout the city without detection. It was also possible the proximity was coincidental and had merely served as a convenience.

Whatever the case, it was clear the sorceress had passed through this particular branch when she last left the city. The ruby entity reported that her magical presence was about as strong down here as it had been in the workroom. It was too soon to tell, but the entity was also under the impression they might be getting closer to her actual location – a comfort after all the false leads Azmih had followed during this venture.

He tried not to let his mind wander too much in case he had to retrace his steps back through the city. But the trail eventually led them out a sewer tunnel into the area just beyond the wall. At a glance, it was obvious there were no guard posts that looked directly over this particular portion of ground – confirmation to the theory that Cersera used these passages as a way to move without detection. But it only took a few minutes to note the lantern perched beside Oz on his cart bench, and within half an hour the two men had reunited.

Oz stood nervously beside his horses, shifting from foot to foot while Azmih consulted his magical guide. The guards at the north gate peered curiously from their guardhouse but, whatever explanation Oz gave for leaving the city so late at night kept them at bay.

With some effort, they managed to shift Oz’s cart off the main road and onto a small goat path that led north east of the city. Once the horses caught their stride, it was easy to get used to the bump and waggle of the cart as it sped across the slightly uneven track.

Though Azmih remained uncertain about what lay at the end of this trail, he was glad he had agreed to let Oz accompany him.  It would have taken him most of the night to make this long a journey on foot, but the horses’ powerful legs ate up the miles and the gentle swaying motion of the wooden cart lulled him into an uneasy peace.

The ruby entity sat silent between them for most of the trek, only occasionally tugging on Oz’s shirt to get him to adjust the cart’s trajectory. Azmih noted the position of the moon and stars and guessed that it was just past midnight when the ruby entity finally instructed them to stop.

They abandoned the cart and skittered down a sharp escarpment to a wide, flat plain that seemed to spread endlessly into the distance. Oz agreed to stay behind with the horses and wait for Azmih’s return, though the necromancer had no idea if it was the slope that worried him or whatever might be waiting in the thick darkness.

For three quarters of an hour, Azmih and his odd companions trekked across the plain, their path lit only by the moon and the dim glow that emanated from the doll’s ruby eyes.

The patch of ground on which the entity called a halt was no different from the rest they had passed, but Azmih had long since come to trust the entity’s abilities. He knelt and let his pale fingers slide through the dry grass, leaving off when his touch caused several blades to disintegrate.

“She is here,” the ruby entity announced, though it offered no further explanation, not even when Azmih didn’t respond right away.

“Where?” he said at last, tilting his head to one side.

“Use your magic,” the ruby entity replied.

Azmih considered pressing, but his odd companion had no reason to lie. Indeed, if it had led him astray, the rubies would likely return to the pouch at his hip and his friend would have no way of perceiving the outside world until Azmih decided to humor him again.

As he had in the workroom, Azmih focused on the bond between himself and his Death. She swept in a wide circle around him, testing the air and ground for magic. As the traces echoed outward like ripples spreading across a pond, Azmih felt a distinctive tingle indicating the presence of nearby magic. It was muted, distant in a way he couldn’t quite describe, but it was also distinctive.

The necromancer made a soft, frustrated sound. “I still don’t understand,” he admitted. “Is she underground?”

“Perhaps,” the ruby entity replied, its tone oddly thoughtful. “I think it’s more likely there is something here we cannot see.”

“Ah,” Azmih replied, understanding. “But how do we reveal the doorway?” It wouldn’t be as simple as the lock mechanism in workroom since this was unlikely to have a physical aspect to its trigger.

“I think you can do it with True Sight,” the ruby entity said, the glow in its ruby eyes momentarily brightening. “You have the knowledge to cast it, don’t you?”

“I do,” Azmih admitted. It was simple enough for his companion to transfer her magical sight to him. But if she saw something, she would have said so by now.

“Then I believe the key – no pun intended – will be in the timing. I suspect, though I do not know, it relies on the position of the moon.”

Unconsciously, Azmih caught himself glancing upward. “Midnight?” he asked with some dismay. If that were the case, they would have to wait until tomorrow night to reveal their destination.

“You would think,” the ruby entity replied with some amusement tingeing its oddly echoing voice. “But it is too common a timeframe. Too easily guessed for most tastes. I think we should wait.”

So they did. Azmih settled into a cross-legged position on the dry grass while his Death paced slowly behind him, expressing an agitation he didn’t allow himself to share. The doll sat across from him in a similar position, its ruby eyes tracing the celestial bodies as they moved across the sky.

Try as he did to remain focused on the matter at hand, Azmih often caught his mind drifting. He thought about the illusions in the graveyard and the tension their disappearance had already started knotting in the locals. He thought Angela and the way the dryad’s eyes danced when she appeared in his dreams. He wondered if she might be trying to reach him now and if she would be rebuffed by the fact that he wasn’t sleeping.

He wondered if she was playing games with him or if she really did feel some kind of affection for him.

Thinking of the dryad reminded him of the cool breeze that always accompanied her dreams. He wished he could find even the barest trace of it now. The air was hot and heavy and Azmih  couldn’t help wondering if whatever was hidden here had something to do with the drought’s source.

“Now,” the entity said, interrupting his thoughts. “Try now.”

Azmih stood and sent a pulse of power to his Death, but nothing happened. He was tired and ready to crawl back into Oz’s cart, if only so they could seek their beds before dawn. But the entity suggested they wait one more hour, and Azmih was loath to make the journey a second time if it could be avoided.

When his Death danced a circle around him an hour later, the magic in the movement spread out around them, glistening like silver thread in the darkness. Like their  last pulse, it rippled outward, causing light to cascade from the heavens. The bright illumination formed the shape of walls, windows and doors, a spectacular and breathtaking outline that eventually resolved into a fortress large enough it could probably be considered a castle.

Azmih spent several seconds staring at the shimmering walls and parapets while his companion, now solid, blinked beside him.

“How could I not see it?” she exclaimed, shocked that something had fooled her magical vision.

“It has to do with the weaving of the space,” the ruby entity replied, nonplused by the revelation. “The gateway can only be crossed when the door is visible, and the door can only be summoned for a small window every day. It is possible there are other time triggers-“

“We best not linger,” Azmih interrupted, casting the doll an apologetic look. “Please explain the finer details to me another time. For now, we must find our way within before our time runs out.”

All three of them turned their attention back to the shimmering outline, but it didn’t take long to devise their next step. As soon as Azmih realized which shades of silver light represented solid surfaces and which openings, he was able to ascertain that the door was open.

He glanced at each of his companions in turn, silently asking if they were willing to step across the threshold with him. His Death had little choice; she would follow his lead, but he technically couldn’t force the ruby entity to do more for him than it already had.

To his relief, the doll’s head nodded slightly, then turned resolutely back toward the shaded opening in the silver wall.

As one, the companions stepped forward, moving beyond the bright archway and disappearing beyond the castle’s shimmering outline.

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