Freebie Mondays: Last Rites (Part 7)

Freebie Mondays: Last Rites (Part 7)

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, and part 6 is over here!
. . .

The dark concealed many things mortal eyes never managed to perceive. The elf waiting downstairs was more keenly aware of that than most. These hidden specters didn’t always take the form of monster or whispers – they didn’t always take form at all – but they were always there, always waiting.

Laying inert inside the rubies that housed its soul, the necromantic creature bided its time, waiting for the first hint of those hidden forces. Long before physical sensation, they would alert him to a conduit that allowed him to interact with the outside world.

Sometimes it became tiresome within the rubies. Numb, monotonous, boring. But this was a brief wait. Briefer than most. And the creature had faith the necromancer would come if something went horribly wrong.

It sensed a soft click, like two ends of a joint slipping into place as the first ruby slotted into the first empty eyesocket on the skull. But it couldn’t see or hear or, indeed, move its borrowed body until the second ruby slipped into place.

It must have made a macabre sight – a long still skeleton, polished by time and weather, rising from the crumbling bed sheets as it extended a bony hand in the golem’s direction.

Even creatures of magic weren’t immune to surprise, and the ancient golem stumbled backward two steps before it caught itself, remembering its master and its duties.

In such close proximity, the necromantic creature could sense the pull of magical obligation, though it couldn’t exactly read the construct’s thoughts.

The necromancer had promised the golem last rites, a chance to finally lay its master – and its duties – to rest. Slowly, tentatively, the golem moved to the edge of the bed and lowered itself to one knee.

It was a wonder the floor didn’t give way beneath the heavy thing, an even bigger wonder that its joints didn’t lock, preventing it from maneuvering at all.

Carefully, the necromantic entity lowered its host’s skeletal arm and placed all five fingers on the rough surface of the golem’s shoulder. The construct was a sturdy thing. With proper care and a good scrub, it could glimmer fresh as new again. With oiled joints and a few corrections, it could throw off the touch of time. It was a vessel worth coveting – at least from the perspective of a being who had inhabited little more than skulls and stones for the past several centuries.

By contrast, the body it occupied now was delicate. One heavy bump might crack straight through one of the tenuous limbs, leaving it unable to speak or act.

Best to be quick then. Besides, there were people waiting.

“You have done well, my creation.” The necromantic creature manipulated the jawbone, leveraging it open and closed several times. But the voice came from the air, vibrating through the empty ribcage though it ultimately flowed from the rubies. It could speak telepathically, at need, but it preferred to make use of a mouth.

“Now it is time to perform your final duty,” it announced, tilting the skull it occupied down so that it seemed to peer into the golem’s upturned eyes.

“Place these stones into your eye sockets and you will be free of your contract.”

The necromantic creature lifted its arm before the golem could move, then lowered itself carefully back onto the bed. Even so, the tattered remains of cloth broke beneath its slight weight, creating tiny piles of dust and detritus beside and beneath it.

If there was a hitch in its plan, this was the moment it was likely to rear its head. But already there was a spark in the golem’s eye, a glimmer of something long-forgotten. Whether it was hope or determination didn’t matter. It only needed to slot one of the rubies in place.

With far more care than should have been possible considering the width of the golem’s fingers, it prodded the silver plate that lay in front of one of its eyes. It took but a moment to leverage it upward, exposing the hole that had housed it.

By the time the construct loomed over the bed, both the plates had been discarded. Two gaping, shadow-shrouded holes descended as one of the stone hands closed over one of the rubies.

Whenever the gemstones were pulled free of their housing, the necromantic creature experienced a sensation for which it had no name. It was as if the world around it broke and crumbled, leaving it tumbling through a void. The disorientation was frightening but, this time, lasted for only a moment.

Then it was aware of another one of those joint unions and it felt the strength of the golem beneath it.

Now it could read the creature’s thoughts, which were filled with emptiness and desolation for the years it had served in silent isolation.

Realization at last donned on the thing; it had been tricked. These last orders had not come from his master, whom he had ultimately failed to protect.

But even as will surged through the golem’s body, causing it to clamp its fingers around the ruby slotted into its eye, the necromantic being spread its awareness through the magic that made the thing work.

The battle of wills was brief. To an outside observer it would look like nothing more than an ancient construct bent over the body of its master in silent contemplation or, perhaps, mourning.

Within the creature’s body, where magic made it work, there were a series of bright flashes and a surge of conflicting desires. Two beings wished to move this body, but only one of them could remain in control.

When the magical surge faded, the golem’s stiff joints unfolded and thick stone fingers closed over a ruby, hesitating only slightly before pulling it free of its mooring.

*   *   *

Azmih was used to waiting in the darkness with only his silent companion to keep him company. This was how he lived – chasing the unknown with the help of a specter no one else could hear or see.

But even Azmih’s Death seemed unsettled by the stillness that permeated the night palace while they waited for the golem to return from its ascent. Azmih had expected to hear something – a clatter, a crash, or any sign of struggle.

After what he estimated to be the first ten minutes, the necromancer shifted uneasily from foot to foot, wondering if he should peer up the stairs and hope for some sign of activity. A sharp look from his companion rooted him in place, however, so he settled with straining his ears to cut through the silence.

He could hear every rustle of the grass outside, the soft swish of the leaves on the nearby trees, and every shaky breath as it escaped his lips. But he could hear nothing else.

How horrible it must be for the people waiting in the dungeons below. Had they given up on him ever returning? Or did they expect to see him tossed into one of the cells any moment?

A gasp escaped his lips when he caught the sound of unoiled joints shifting and noted the golem’s heavy footfalls. It had been about half an hour since he sent the thing upstairs with the rubies and, finally, it had begun its descent.

Azmih’s heart skipped a beat then started to race, sending a tingling sense of urgency through his torso and into each of his limbs. He tensed, but he wasn’t sure if he should prepare to fight or flee.

If he left the night palace, he might not be able to get back inside until the moon was in the right position again. And he had no way of knowing if it was tied to the celestial body’s position or required a specific phase.

His silent companion passed through him, leaving a momentary chill in his spine. She positioned herself between Azmih and the stairs, though the necromancer had no idea what she could possibly do to prevent the golem’s advance.

His heart leapt into his throat when the bulk of the creature reached the base of the stairs. It turned, ponderous and slow, its movements weighed by its age and weight.

Then the dim light of Azmih’s mage lights glinted against a familiar polished red shape, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

The golem marched steadily until it stood in front of him, then came to a halt. Its jaw still hung crooked from the base of its head, but Azmih could almost swear it was grinning sardonically.

“Fear not, friend. The deed is done.” The jaw grated against its rusted joints as it moved, but Azmih thought most of the voice reverberated from the chest.

“I am tempted to ask how you did it,” the elf admitted, “but I’m not sure I really want to know.”

“I am sure you do not,” the ruby golem agreed, shaking its newly claimed head.

Azmih hesitated, his eyes moving toward the ceiling. “You put the body back?” he asked, his tone sharper than usual.

“As best I could,” the golem agreed as it dipped its head slightly. “The cloth was old, I’m afraid, so there was nothing left to cover it by the time I was done. But the bed frame survived, wonder of wonders.”

Azmih’s gaze lingered a moment longer on the ceiling. He had allowed a necromantic construct to possess and reanimate a dead body, however briefly – an act Death expressly forbid. But there had been living souls in the balance, and there seemed little point in serving the dead exclusively. After all, if he abandoned those in the dungeon beneath his feet, he would be bound to come back and settle their souls – all of whom would likely hold a grudge against him.

“I shall have to come back another time and see the body properly interred,” he murmured with a sigh. Then he shook his head. The soul was at rest so the remains of the vessel could wait. “For now, let’s get everyone out of the dungeon.”

Though he remembered the way, Azmih allowed the ruby-studded golem to lead the way. He appreciated leaving the heavy doors to the golem’s steadfast strength. He was already weary from the journey that brought him here and it was likely to be midmorning before he found his way to bed.

There was a sense of anticipation waiting for him in the dungeon, as if everyone had taken turns holding their breath while they awaited his return. A series of disappointed sighs greeted the golem’s return until several of the cell’s occupants noted that Azmih still trailed willingly in its wake.

The doll was still clutched in his arms, though it was inert now. He wasn’t sure what he would do with such a hideous thing, but he supposed there was time to worry about that later.

Hands closed around bars as the dungeon’s occupants began to murmur and exclaim, but Azmih focused his attention on the golem.

“Can you open the cells?”

“I believe so,” the golem replied thoughtfully. “There is a spark of memory here… Ah, yes!”

The ruby-studded golem lifted one of its beefy hands and pressed it to a spot a third of the way up the door of one of the cells. A click echoed through the space and the lock slid aside.

The moment the lock released, the cells occupants pushed the door open and surged out of the cell, whooping and hugging.

Azmih stepped to the side, pressing himself against the wall near the door so he would be out of the way while his companion waded through the thought, unleashing each of the doors in turn.

By the time the third cell was open, the former occupants of the prison were surging up the stairs and probably out the door into what remained of the sweet, blissful night. Only Cersera lingered, waiting until each of the other prisoners safely ascended the stairs before she fell into step next to Azmih.

It was with a great sense of relief that the necromancer stepped through the still-glimmering door of the night palace and back onto the soft grass of the field that held it. The ruby-studded golem tromped in his wake, then turned and closed the door.

As soon as the last of them moved beyond the threshold, the glimmer faded and the night palace disappeared into the night.

Azmih backtracked, lifted his free arm and felt through the air for the solid walls he knew to be present, but they had completely vanished. The night palace was gone for the moment, laid to rest with its old master.

Perhaps that was as it should be.

“How did you know you’d be able to open the cells after you took over the golem?” the necromancer demanded, curiosity finally getting the better of him.

Again, he got the impression the golem was grinning at him when it addressed him. “I didn’t know for sure,” the necromantic creature admitted. “But I figured if I couldn’t, I could at least stand by while you did it.”

Azmih chuckled. “Fair enough.”

“I am curious,” Cersera announced, “how you managed to overcome that thing. It seemed pretty steadfast in its duties. It wouldn’t let us die, that much was clear. It brought us rations every day – little blocks that never seemed to go bad and gave us enough nutrition – but it refused to ever speak with us, not even to turn us out.”

These were the details Azmih had feared to ask for, though perhaps not knowing the extent of his crime wouldn’t allow him to escape its consequences. After all, he had played a role in violating Death’s laws, even if it had been for a good cause. He didn’t know if preventing a group of the living from becoming wandering spirits would be enough to erase that sin, and he wasn’t particularly keen to find out.

But it was a fair question, and Cersera had a right to know, so he made no attempt to stop the golem from answering.

“It was an old thing,” the golem said when Azmih didn’t protest. “I suspect it wanted freedom – or oblivion – but simply didn’t know how to achieve it. When it sensed I intended to put it out of its misery, it ceased to resist.” The golem’s shoulder joints squeaked as their new owner raised them in a shrug. “This will make a fine body,” it added, the light illuminating the rubies shifting in a way that suggested the creature was giving Azmih the side-eye as they began to make their way back across the field. “Once it’s clean and fixed.”

“I see no reason you shouldn’t keep it for awhile,” Azmih replied with a shrug of his own. “You’ve earned it. Though I do hope you’ll continue to accompany me on my quest.” He still needed to identify the thing before he decided what to do with it.

“We make a good team,” the golem replied in a tone that suggested satisfaction.

The sun kissed the horizon by the time they reached the slope that led back to the road. They were a beleaguered group by then, eager for a hot meal and a comfortable bed. But to Azmih’s great relief, Oz was still waiting at the side of the road with his horses hitched to his wagon.

The traveler leapt to his feet the moment he saw them. He perched at the edge of the slope and waved his arms, yelling until he caught their attention.

His presence reinvigorated many of the former prisoners. They helped each other hurry to the base of the slope, then Oz helped the first group climb to the top. Soon there was a series of eager hands waiting to help the rest of the group over each hump. Azmih received several embraces as he passed each obstacle, and he couldn’t suppress the feeling of joy that welled in his chest when he reached the road.

Getting the golem up the slope was a bit tricky. It was too heavy to haul, even with a large group. In the end, Oz unhitched one of his horses and tied a thick rope around the golem’s torso. Then he backed the horse across the road while the golem dug its arms and legs into the side of the ridge.

They left a pair of deep gouges in the dirt, but they got the golem over the ridge. Then they piled into the back of Oz’s wagon, eager to share their tale and rest their feet.

Oz happily chattered all the way back to town, catching the prisoners up on recent events while questioning them in great detail about their experience.

A crowd of villagers had gathered at the gate by the time they reached it. Azmih suspected the guards had spied them coming down the road – a wagon full of missing people accompanied by a rusted old golem – and roused the townsfolk with the news.

Those who had been held in the night palace fell into the arms of loved ones who surged around the cart when it came to a stop. Azmih waited in the back until a path cleared for him and the golem to step to the side.

The reunion, he suspected, would go on for some time. Joy and excitement rippled through the gathering and the streets beyond, but Azmih was no longer a part of it. He passed through a smaller gateway one of the guards opened for him and guided his new golem companion down a side street.

They made it all of ten feet before Adelaide caught their attention. She waved frantically until the necromancer stopped, then grabbed his hand and tugged him all the way back to her inn.

Azmih was too tired to protest the hot food and cool ale presented to him. He was only grateful Adelaide said nothing about the golem that perched in the corner.

When his stomach was full and his head was buzzing, Azmih leaned heavily against the railing to mount the stairs. He fell into his bed, only half aware that the ruby-studded golem had settled in the corner to watch him sleep.

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