Blood for the Dead

Blood for the Dead

As I mentioned in my blog post on Monday, where I introduced Azmih and explained some of his history, I wrote this story for a class I took in college. The only requirements for the story was that it be less than ten pages and that it say something about the human condition. My teacher did not believe this could be done with a fantasy story. I was determined to prove him wrong. We wrote three stories for that class. This was my best one and also the one he chose to share with the class (which means they critiqued it and we discussed it as a group). This story has been a personal pride and joy for a long time and I’m so pleased to finally share it with you. Enjoy!
. . .

Every time I look at my beautiful, vigorous Azmih, I am saddened to realize how his long association with me has changed him. Once his hair was black as midnight and shimmered where the light caressed the silken locks. Once his flesh was vibrant, replete with the life flowing through his veins. Long ago his eyes were blue as the summer sky. Sadly, though his features are still youthful, that likeness has been lost to time. I alone remember Azmih as a child. Now all the color has gone out of his hair, leaving it white as new fallen snow. The luster has drained from his skin. He appears as a solid apparition, a living ghost.

Even his voluminous ebony robes don’t obscure the gaunt form beneath. It surprises me so few people take pity on him on the rare occasions he wanders into cities. He is easily taken for the drifting destitute. There are times he looks half-dead. If I didn’t see him eat with my own eyes, I might believe he never took a meal. Yet there is strength beneath that wan exterior. I have seen him call upon it in moments of need, when he faces a foe far stronger than he, with all the calm of an oak quietly standing guard in the forest.

Though there is little anger in him, my Azmih wanders the world with such a grim expression, it isn’t hard to mistake him for a vengeful spirit. It takes too much to rouse his temper. I think he simply treats his life with the severity it warrants. He has little reason to rejoice, wandering the world with only myself for company. I’m afraid I’m not very good company, not even for the only living man of whom I’m fond. Lonely as he must be, I sense he rarely allows sorrow to rule his heart. On the rare occasions a smile graces his features, it brightens his whole face, even his foggy grey eyes.

My mind is drawn to a dreary, autumn evening on which no smile lighted Azmih’s features as he led me deep into a forest we sometimes visited. It was not a path he enjoyed traversing, but necessity demanded we reach Valdath quickly. Azmih had business there that could not wait, and we needed to make a stop along the way.

The moon, though almost full, was shrouded by dark, angry clouds, relentlessly dumping rain on our heads. In the dim light, I caught spatters of red, orange and yellow. The leaves took these colors in their last attempt to cling to the life slipping from them. Those that faltered were crushed under Azmih’s feet as he trudged resolutely forward, determined to reach his destination before the moon reached its peak. Attempting to protect himself from the rain, Azmih pulled up the hood of his robe and hunched forward. His efforts met with little success; his white hair was plastered to his pale cheek. A squishing sound accompanied each of his steps.

With the weather so miserable, I was surprised when he drew to a halt. Leaning forward, I noticed a small, soggy form huddling at the base of a tree at the side of the road. The child was soaked, her scraggly hair plastered to the sides of her face. The rags clinging to her thin frame looked to be inadequate protection from the storm’s chill. No wonder Azmih paused to shelter the pitiful creature with one of his billowing sleeves. It did little good, but she smiled up at him with all the gratitude she could muster. He offered one of his rare smiles in return.

“What are you doing out in this weather, little one?” he asked.

The child scrubbed at her eyes, leaving dirty smudges on her cheeks. “Been here a long time,” she said with a childish pout.

His smile didn’t falter; it almost never does. “Lost are you?” he murmured as he knelt in the mud beside her. “If you promise not to be afraid, I will show you the way to leave this place.”

The child hesitated, confused. “You aren’t afraid?” she asked, her voice almost lost in the driving rain.

“Of course not,” Azmih answered with his usual calm. “Why should I be?”

“Everyone else is. They scream and run away.”

“Ah,” Azmih nodded. “Yes, little one, that is because people often fear what they do not understand. I suffer no such impediment, perhaps because I know what you are.”

“She doesn’t realize…” I spoke, comprehension dawning on me. At times, Azmih’s intuition is keener than mine. “She is dead. She has been a long time.” I did not speak loudly; I never do. My voice need not fight the wind and rain to reach Azmih’s ears. He always hears what I say.

Azmih’s revelation seemed to awaken the child from a distant dream. She shrunk away from him, cowering in fear, trying to disappear into the solid oak behind her. Since the child possessed no tangible form, her fearful gesture was somewhat successful. Her shoulder disappeared into the tree’s slimy bark. Her legs receded into the ground to her knees. Where her flesh vanished into more concrete objects, her color faded, revealing her as the incorporeal spirit she was.

It was a disturbing sight. Most people would have shrieked and fled in fear but, true to his word, Azmih remained serene, unbothered by the ghostly display. Even his smile endured, though it was tinged with sorrow. I knew he wondered how the child died, how long she wandered lost in the forest, her soul unable to escape the site of her demise. He’s too kind to interrogate a frightened spirit. His questions remained unanswered.

I didn’t find the display impressive. Being incorporeal myself, I know how simple it is to pass through solid objects. Little effort is involved.

“Please, don’t be frightened,” Azmih entreated. “I can show you how to get to where you belong.”

“No!” the child wailed. “Don’t want to go there! It’s scary! Full of bad monsters!”

“No,” Azmih said firmly. “Where you will go, little one, there are no bad things, no monsters. Only light and beauty.”

“Have you been there before?”

“It’s not my time to leave here. I suspect, when the time comes, I’ll not go to the same blissful end as you. However, you have waited long enough, little one. Are you ready to go into the light?” Though she wouldn’t be able to touch him, he held out his hand. He used this gesture often. He was asking for her trust.

The spirit hesitated. As the moments dragged on, my temper frayed. I don’t have the patience of my living companion. We needed to accomplish our task before sunrise. He did not require her cooperation. I will admit, I’m not certain why he spent so much time securing it.

My annoyance did not affect Azmih’s patience.  The spirit finally lifted her hand, though it passed through Azmih’s. Untroubled by the odd sensation it must have caused, he extended his other hand to me. I answered his summons without hesitation; I always do.

As I swept toward him, I began to dance. The mud showed no signs of my passing. The dance he needed that night was simple. He invoked it often. I whirled around him and the spirit child, each circle tighter, bringing me ever closer to where they stood. The mud was no hindrance to me; I could no more slip than I could feel the falling rain.

As I danced, Azmih chanted in an ancient language. I couldn’t hear the words, but I felt them. He used them to summon his power, my power. I felt the energy build around me until it seemed a tangible thing, electric. As my limbs became solid, they began to tingle. A small gasp indicated the exact moment I became visible to eyes not Azmih’s. Even the dead cannot see all.

As the intensity of his chanting increased, so did my dance steps. I spun to a stop next to the child. Flinging my arms wide, I pulled her into an embrace. She passed through me; I was the channel through which Azmih worked his will. I was her gateway to the afterlife. There was a moment during which I felt the whole of her being, everything she had been. Her short life and her violent death flashed before my eyes for an instant. Then she passed beyond me, gone from the world of the living.

Azmih stopped chanting and I felt the magic that made me solid drain away. The vibrations in the air ceased and the rain passed through me again. I turned back to my companion, but his eyes would be able to see me long after the magic faded. He sighed as he stood.

“One less drop of blood for you to bleed this night,” I said, trying to offer him comfort. From the expression on his face, my words fell short of my mark.

“Best not to think of it that way…” he muttered, his eyes narrowing on a gap in the trees.  “Look: we have reached our destination.”

Following his gaze, I saw the altar we were searching for. Once it was adorned by a finely crafted statue depicting the most powerful of deities. Time and nature had been cruel to both, leaving them little more than a boulder atop a stone slab. Still, I noticed familiar patterns where ancient runes had eroded.

I made my way to the altar, though I wasn’t solid enough to run my fingers over the rough, wind-raked surface. Azmih followed only halfway before he paused. Reaching into the depths of his robe, he retrieved a pouch full of herbs. Sheltering the pouch with his sleeve, my companion made his way around the altar, sprinkling the herbs on the ground in a roughly circular shape, chanting as he went. We were less sheltered from the rain in the clearing. The deluge quickly washed the herbs away, but they had served their purpose. The ground was consecrated, the circle of protection invoked. Though few of the herbs remained to mark the sacred circle, it was unlikely anyone would brave the storm to violate the barrier.

When he finished, Azmih joined me. Returning the herbs to the deep recesses of his robes, he produced a small dagger in a worn leather sheath. The leather handle guard had been rebound several times. This was no ordinary knife; this was Azmih’s atheme. The construction process was difficult. Aside from requiring specific components, no hand, save Azmih’s could ever touch it. It was the only item in his possession he considered valuable. It wasn’t just for harvesting herbs; the dagger was a key component in sacred rituals such as this one.

Azmih laid the atheme on the altar and placed his hand over the blade. He bowed his head. Once more he chanted in the ancient language, rarely spoken by mortal men. It is the language of Death, spoken by the beings which belong to that entity. It is my language. I taught Azmih to speak it. He used it that night to initiate our most sacred ritual.

He said, “Beneath the full moon, at the place deemed sacred, I perform the ancient rite, renew my vows to Death and offer my blood for the dead.”

In one smooth motion, he pulled the dagger free of its sheath. There was a small niche in the altar just in front of the blob which had once been a statue. It was just large enough to accommodate the atheme’s handle and hold the blade upright. Azmih wedged the dagger in place, then pressed his arms to either side of the blade.

If I had lungs, I would have held my breath. Without hesitation, without flinching, he drew his arms over the blade, slicing his wrists deep enough to allow blood to flow.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, Azmih slid to his knees before the altar. Bracing himself against the sturdy stone, he laid his arms across the weather-worn surface. His blood flowed into the deep notches, all that were left of the ancient runes. I stood behind him. As his blood stained the stone, I leaned over him, placing my hands between his on the altar. At my touch, the small crimson stream altered course, flowing into me. The more blood I drew into my incorporeal body, the more solid I became.

Azmih’s eyes were closed, his forehead pressed to the cold, wet stone. His voice was strained when he spoke. “I bleed for those gone before me who no longer can.”

I remembered those he spoke of. His words conjured the memories. I saw Azmih’s family, his clan, all of them brutally murdered. Slain because they attempted the same misunderstood, unappreciated work at which Azmih still persists. I remembered the smiling face of Azmih’s mother, pale even in life. I recalled the charred remains of their home, the shock he felt when he discovered it, his guilt that he alone survived.

The ritual continued.

“I bleed for the dead left unguided, the living left to defy Death, and the restless spirits unaided.”

His words summoned new memories. There were times even Azmih’s strength and diligence met their match. There were foes he couldn’t defeat, spirits he couldn’t tame and souls he could not lead to the afterlife. He suffered for every time he failed Death’s work, or worse, denied it.

“And finally, I bleed for my Death, that she might continue to guide and protect me.”

This marked the part of the ritual I hate most. It is never easy to watch the only living man I care for slit his wrists and bleed. It’s never easy to see the pain in his eyes, to watch him stagger, weak from the loss of a vital piece of his life. During the last part of the ritual, he bled because of me. I became the source of his suffering.

A part of me wishes deeply to take this burden from him. Gladly would I refuse the need, if only I could. Should Azmih cease to bleed, he would be a happier man, but my appearance would slip from his eyes. My words would fade from his ears. Never again would we touch, until that final, ultimate moment when I will carry him away, fulfill my task, and disappear forever.

Though I hate to see him bleed, I cherish his companionship. I cannot bear the thought of being unable to converse, or losing the ability to offer Azmih comfort when he has no other company.

The last drop of blood disappeared from the altar into my completely solid hands. Azmih slumped to the muddy ground. His hood slid from his head, leaving his white hair and pale skin exposed to the driving rain. He could have been dead, but I knew that he wasn’t.

Turning, I knelt over him. I caught each of his wrists and pressed my fingers against the open wounds. This time the power we share between us answered my will. The self inflicted wounds disappeared as though they never existed, leaving neither scab nor scar. It was the only comfort I could offer him. He deserved it. After all, he gave his life-force for my strength. I wished I could do more. I still do.

He offered me a wan smile and I mustered one for him in return. “It is done,” I told him, drawing his head off the muddy ground into my lap. For a few short minutes, I could offer him protection from the rain and comfort while he ached. Then the magic that made me solid, summoned during the ritual, would fade. I would be intangible again, inconsequential, a figment in the mind of the man I held. Though I would remain tangible longer than when I danced, I would fade none-the-less. This world is for the living and I, not alive, cannot be part of it for long.

There are not many times I wish for more. I am content to be separate from the living, whom I find irrational, self-centered, and generally foolish. This was one of the rare occasions I wished I could remain among them, if only so I could stay with my Azmih and put an end to his suffering. I am always leaving him, fading into nothing, though my presence stays nearby. When the end comes, I will leave him forever. Though I believe an afterlife more pleasant than his life awaits him, I will not be able to share it with him. That, I think, will sadden him nearly as much as the lonely life he leads. Though the pain will not be mine, it is ghastly to think of a man enduring without something that has been a vital and inescapable piece of his life for as long as he has lived it.

I could only be glad of the few moments I had to hold him. It is a curse sometimes, to pass through everything solid. There are times when I cannot touch my Azmih no matter how much I might wish to or how hard I try. My hands can only reach him when they are solid, and my hands are only solid after the rituals during which he summons our power. It is not every time I hold Azmih that I wish to keep him. But that night, as my figure slowly faded, I wished for more than I can ever have. I wondered what it might be like to be a woman instead of a shadow. I wondered what it might be like to share his life as more than a friend, more than a confidante… perhaps as a lover.

Love is not something for the non-living to understand but, in my own way, I love Azmih. I am part of him.

I can think of no other night when I have wished for time to stop. In the dark and the rain, while dawn crept slowly nearer, Azmih lay in my arms, seeking and finding his only comfort in Death.

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