Freebie Mondays: Trail of Chimes

Freebie Mondays: Trail of Chimes

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.

I hope to rectify the problem of not writing Azmih nearly enough over the next few days with my latest serial. Be sure to leave a comment and let me know what you think and what you’d like to see more of!
. . .

Often, Azmih wondered what force guided the direction of his feet. His old teachers would have told him it was Death herself, calling him to the places where his work was needed. But it had been long since he communed with her, long since he felt secure in his connection with her power, though he still endeavored to do her work. If it was not divine grace, what could possibly carry him time and again to places where people needed his skills?

The gentle tinkle of chimes reached his ear, startling him from his reverie and drawing his feet to a stop. Had his silent companion been corporeal, she would have crashed into his back, so sudden was his stop.

Azmih lifted his chin and tilted his ears in the direction the sound had come from. It was slightly to the east of his direction, but not far off his path. He suspected if he continued down this hardpacked road, he would come to a turning – perhaps even the turning he had originally intended to take.

He turned his head to pear into the opposite distance. His eyes raked a high mountain rising above the gold-brown earth with its recently seared grasses. He recognized that mountain. Almost a year ago, he had gone over it to avoid one of the altars that called to his essence. Now he seemed drawn back to it, perhaps to check on the unexpected friends he made during his stay.

But for now, he would have to tend to the call.

“It’s odd,” he said as he resumed his trek.

How so? the silent voice of his companion filled his head, as clear and crisp as it ever was.

“Usually a wind carries the sound. But today is a perfectly still day.” There weren’t even clouds in the blue sky above. Not even a hint of a small fluffy cotton ball hovering in the far distance. The grasses that crunched beneath his feet were perfectly parched. A few even crumbled beneath the weight of his boot.

It hadn’t rained here in a long while and Azmih got the sudden impression the stillness was unnatural, heavy and stifling.

He reached the crossroads within half an hour and, again, the soft tinkle of chimes on a windless day directed his feet. Instead of turning right toward the mountain, he turned left toward a town.

He expected to find a middle of nowhere outpost – those were the sorts of places he was most often drawn. But instead his small road quickly opened onto a larger one set with uneven cobbles. A horse-drawn cart skittered in front of him, and the driver quickly drew against the reins to haul his horses to a stop.

A moment later a small figure appeared beside the cart, waving frantically to catch Azmih’s attention.

He hesitated. Not many welcomed the company of a necromancer. But the black cloak and the well-made pack hanging on his back weren’t particularly distinctive. The mark of his order he kept concealed beneath his clothing, well out of reach or view. So to this friendly traveler, he must seem like nothing more than a perhaps down on his luck peer.

Before his silent companion had a chance to chide him, Azmih mustered a weary smile and trudged forward, offering a cautious wave in reply.

“Where you headed, stranger?” the stranger asked, an odd but distinctive twang to his words.

“Just into town,” Amzih replied with a shrug.

The man looked him up and down, his gaze appraising, and it was all Azmih could do not to tense tight as a spring. “You lookin’ to trade?” the man asked suspiciously.

“Heavens no!” Azmih exclaimed with a small laugh. Where on earth had the man gotten the idea he had goods with him? “I’m just a weary traveler seeking a place to rest my head for a few days.”

“Well then,” the stranger exclaimed, suddenly grinning, “why don’t you hop on board? I ain’t had company since I left home ’bout five days past. And it’s a hot day. Not really fit for walkin’.”

Azmih smiled and forced himself to exhale lightly. “That would be delightful,” he admitted. He waited until the stranger nodded to circle the cart and crawl onto the bench beside the trader.

When the man was certain Azmih had a steady perch, he snapped the reins and clicked his tongue to urge his horse into motion. Azmih rocked slightly as the cart lurched into motion – it had been a long time since he rode anything – but he quickly regained his balance.

“What be your name, son?” the stranger asked, peering at Azmih inquisitively out of the corner of his eye.

He must not have noticed the elf ears beneath Azmih’s hood.

“Azmih,” he replied simply. “And yourself, friend?”

“Azmih? Huh, that’s an odd one.” But the man seemed to shrug it off quickly. “Call me Oslore – or just Oz if you prefer.” He chuckled. “You been to this area before?”

“Not recently,” Azmih admitted. He didn’t want to admit the full extent of his wanderings, but he didn’t want to seem like too much of an outsider either.

But Oz only snorted. He was a middle aged man with a short crop of muddy hair just starting to show its first signs of grey. His chin was dotted with about a week’s worth of stubble and this, too, was staring to show signs of age. “Say, ain’t you hot under that hood, son? The sun has been mighty terrible in these parts of late.”

“I noticed,” Azmih admitted, neatly avoiding the question about his hood. “It seems unseasonably warm.”

“That it is. Haven’t seen many of the spring rains. We live just on the edge of the drought ourselves, but we ain’t farmers so it hasn’t hurt us too much.”

Azmih glanced over his shoulder but the contents of the cart he rode was contained in wooden crates, so he would have to ask about the wares if he wanted to know Oz’s business.

“Go on,” Oz insisted into the brief silence. “Take down your hood. I ain’t gunna bite ya.” He laughed as if to emphasize how foolish Azmih’s skittish behavior was.

Azmih’s pale hand shook slightly as he reached up to draw back his hood, but he hoped he concealed the motion well enough to make it unnoticeable. Of course, given the pallor of his skin, there was little question why he kept his hood up, despite the beads of sweat forming along his forehead and matting some of his white hair to the sides of his face and neck.

Oz took one look at his pointed ears and grey eyes and whistled.

“Sorry, Azmih, didn’t realize you was one of them fair folk.”

“It’s quite all right,” Azmih insisted. “I appreciate your kindness. As you said, it’s a hot day.” And though Azmih was used to fending for himself, he always appreciated a friendly gesture. “Say, you seem quite familiar with this particular place.”

“I make the trip about five times a year,” Oz agreed. “There be something you need?”

“A good place to stay,” Azmih admitted. “Everyone will claim their inn is the best, but only other travelers know the truth.”

Oz laughed. “You’ve got the right of it, so you have, Azmih! You’ll want the Dangerous Queen, you will. Best inn in the whole damn place, though it ain’t particularly fancy.”

“The Dangerous Queen?” Azmih repeated, his tone thoughtful.

Again, his eyes were drawn to the distant mountain, though now he had to twist in his seat to find it scooting along the horizon. The hills had become deeper and the grass somewhat hardier, though it still obviously thirsted for relief from the heat.

What was the name of the inn where he stayed while he investigated the strange voices?

The Impolite Princess, his silent companion supplied. She rode in the back of the cart, perched atop one of the high crates, completely unnoticed by their benefactor.

It was, wasn’t it? The names are so similar, he mused.

Just as he began to consider if it might be a coincidence, the chimes reached his ears again. If old Oz heard them, he gave no mention of it.

“That’s right,” he said, oblivious to Azmih’s consternation. “And I just so happen to know the owner. You stick with me, Azmih, and you’ll do just fine!”

*   *   *

The town was large enough to have rudimentary walls. Not the kind that could withstand a siege, but the kind that certainly held brigands at bay. Oz navigated the guard, claiming Azmih as an old family friend, though they had only met on the road two hours before. Azmih doubted he would have had difficulty getting past the gown guard, especially since he could easily claim business in the city, but he appreciated the gesture none-the-less.

Oz was a chatty fellow, he even nattered at the guard checking his wares the whole time he poked inside his crates. Oz turned out to be carrying mostly plates and cups, all of them finely crafted pottery. But it seemed his wife was also a skilled weaver because the larger crates  held tapestries, rugs and even a few fine robes.

When the inspection was finished, they joined the choked roadways and Oz steered them directly toward a small in located near the wall on the eastern side of the city – where it had an excellent view of the distant mountain, Azmih couldn’t help but notice.

Oz handed his reigns to the stable boy as Azmih climbed down from the bench. It took a moment to get used to standing on solid, unmoving ground again, but he was so mystified by the rapid ringing of the wind chimes that he didn’t have much chance to think about it.

Oz seized Azmih’s hand and, together, they burst through the door just as a woman with wild eyes descended the stairs and turned resolutely in their direction. She was short. Her ruddy red-brown hair had been gathered in a loose – and quickly disintegrating – bun atop her head. But it was her warm brown eyes and rounded cheeks that drew Azmih’s attention; they seemed so familiar!

“Oz,” the woman breathed, though her eyes locked with Azmih’s and held him frozen until the shorter human jostled him forward. “I should have known.”

“Yes, indeedy, it’s that time again. Oh, Addy, this be Azmih. I found him on the road just toddling along dressed in all black with his hood up. Can ya believe it?”

Azmih mustered a weary smile as if to say, yes, that is me, such a silly man, but he couldn’t manage to find words that felt appropriate to speak aloud.

“No,” Addy replied, eyeing Azmih a moment more before she turned to the rowdy old man. “You’ll want your regular room, I expect?”

“If you’ve got it available.” Oz waggled his eyebrows in Azmih’s direction as if to share some secret about the service he usually received here. “You got another ‘un available, Addy? My friend Azmih’s gunna need it.”

“It’ll have to be smaller-” the inn keeper started as she shuffled to the front desk and reached for a keychain.

“The amount of space doesn’t bother me,” Azmih replied without hesitation. “Though I’d like a bath, if you could manage.”

“Easily done,” Addy replied, seeming somewhat relieved.

“I’ll cover it,” Oz announced, winking up at the pale elf. “And his room for the night. This man’s good company, Addy, and you can’t ignore that this day and age.”

All Azmih had done to earn himself the label of good company was allow Oz to chat at him during their journey without interrupting. Occasionally, when the man paused to breathe, Azmih would offer some detail about a place they had both been or a journey that seemed somewhat similar to one Oz described.

Apparently that had made them best friends.

“That is highly generous of you,” Azmih protested, holding up a hand, “but you really don’t need-“

“Oh, Oz isn’t troubled with silly things like needs,” Addy replied. She mustered a smile, though she looked worn and weary. Maybe run frazzled by a large number of customers. “And you can’t talk him out of something he’s decided.”

Oz slid his thumbs beneath the belt loops of his pants and puffed out his chest, clearly proud by this recounting of his personality.

“Well then, I will have to repay you some other way.”Azmih bowed his head. He would have to remember this strange and cheerful man, he was already deeply in debt to him.

“Come on, you two,” Addy said, hustling them toward the stairs. “Let’s get you in your rooms and get those baths started before the evening rush hits.”

Azmih couldn’t tell from the innkeeper’s tone whether this was a statement of pure business practicality, or a genuine concern for her customers’ wellbeing. Not that it mattered. He allowed old Oz to proceed him up the stairs and fell into step at the rear of the small troupe. Of course, Oz nattered all the way to his room and Addy only managed to disengage by insisting that she had to get ‘poor, weary Azmih’ settled before something else caught her attention.

The moment Oz yielded her attention, Addy slammed the door to his room closed and roughly seized Azmih’s arm. The necromancer stifled a surprised yelp, if only because he was used to not drawing attention to himself. He allowed himself to be dragged down the hallway and shoved into another room, though he braced himself the moment the woman released his wrist.

This was it, the confrontation he had expected on the road. Somehow, though he wasn’t sure how, Addy had recognized him. He caught himself reaching for the pendant that hung around his neck, but his fingers scrabbled against smooth cloth. The pendant was hidden, as it should be.

Addy drew a deep breath and her lips twisted into a grim line. Azmih glanced frantically about the room but, aside from a small window that looked out onto the city wall, there was only the door in front of which Addy stood. He would just have to hope this was a verbal assault and not a physical one.

But then Addy released the breath she had gathered in an explosive sigh. Her chest emptied, her shoulders drooped and her body almost seemed to wither. “It’s you, isn’t it?” she demanded, stumbling forward to set both hands more gently against Azmih’s upraised arm. “It has to be. You look exactly like she described.”

“I’m sorry?” Azmih’s heart beat rapidly in his chest, thudding against his encroaching ribcage with each fevered burst of activity. His arms were shaking. He had no idea what was happening.

“My cousin, Eliza, wrote me,” the innkeeper explained. “Months ago, mind. She said a pale stranger had come to town and helped her with a difficult problem. The kind of problem that could ruin a life, if you understand what I mean.”

Azmih’s brain raced feverishly through his recent memories in search of the name Eliza. He found it next to Impolite Princess. “Eliza?” he asked like a man newly waking from a dream. “Tabitha’s mother?”

“Yes,” Addy breathed. “That’s the one. She said you were a godsend.”

“Well,” Azmih interrupted, “I don’t know about that…”

“My cousin doesn’t exaggerate. If she says you were a godsend, then you were for her.”

“Cousin?” Azmih blurted, still trying to regain his bearings.

“I’m sorry.” Suddenly the innkeeper jumped backward, jerking her hands free of Azmih’s arm and using them to smooth the fabric of her clothing. “Where’s my head? My name is Adelaide, but people around here just call me Addy. I’m originally from out of town. Up that mountain you can see beyond the wall. You have to tilt your head up a bit from this angle, but you’ll be able to see a piece of it from your window.”

Azmih glanced toward the window but he was still too stunned to move from his current position. From here, he only saw the wall and a corner of the building next door. He blinked and turned back to Adelaide.

“Did your cousin happen to mention hanging a certain kind of wind chime outside your establishment in one of her letters?”

“Why, yes!” Adelaide exclaimed. “And when they started going off this morning despite the dead stillness of the air, I thought I was going mad!”

Azmih finally relaxed, letting a soft sigh escape his lips. He turned and sank onto the edge of the room’s small, sturdy bed, motioning for Adelaide to make herself comfortable. “This explains much,” he admitted. Before departing from Eliza’s inn he did tell her that she could summon him back with the chimes if she ever needed to. Though he rarely worked his trade in the same place twice.

“I thought I recognized the pack you carry as her handiwork,” Adelaide crowed, pleased with her perception. “But it’s the eyes that give you away. Plenty of folk have pale skin, but usually not eyes like storm clouds. My, my but I am pleased to see you! Our trouble started well before Eliza’s, though it comes and goes like the light of the moon.”

Azmih drew another deep breath and released it more slowly this time. “It might help if you explain what you’d like me to do.”

“Of course,” Adelaide replied quickly. “Where are my manners? I swear, if my head weren’t screwed so tightly to my neck, I’d completely lose track of it…” She drew several rapid breaths and started over.

“Our troubles aren’t as big and obvious as Eliza’s were, which makes them difficult to speak about. But I first noticed a couple years back. We held a funeral for a somewhat well known figure in town. I didn’t know him personally, but I knew enough of him to be invited to the service.

“Anyhow, it wasn’t more than two weeks later I heard a couple of folk talking about him as though he might come home. I ignored it at first. Grief does odd things to people, you ken. But the whispers kept circulating. People acting as if he had gone missing rather than into the ground. I even went by the graveyard to check, but there was his headstone, plain as day.

“But I still didn’t want to say anything. You know how it is. People deal with things the way they do. There was a grieving wife to consider. And a pair of kids though, granted, they’re all grown.

“A couple months went by and I nearly forgot the whole thing. I got used to drowning out the whispers, I guess, and feeling odd about the whole situation. Then the mayor’s wife died and we put her in the ground not far away.

“And it started all over again. The whispers like she was out of town and might be home any moment. This time I was spooked terribly bad so I started asking around.” Here she faltered for a moment and shook her head.

“Trouble is, most people think I’m crazy. They look at me like I’ve gone and grown a couple of new heads. I poke down to the cemetery from time to time and that’s when I saw other people milling about the stones. We all got together for a talk, and that’s when we realized something was wrong.

“I’m not the only one, you see, whose noticed the strange talk. There are about three dozen of us, give or take. We all recall the burial services to the letter, but no one else does. If one of us starts poking around about the deaths, we get treated like we’re possessed by demons and need to seek the local temple.

“Might have been easy to ignore the whole incident, except it keeps happening. About a dozen people have gone to the grave now, yet people still talk of ’em as if they might still be around. Mystifies the hell out of me and everyone else who remembers their passing, but we haven’t been able to do anything about it.”

She paused for a several long moments and Azmih got the impression she was waiting for him to say something. He pursed his lips, mulling over the situation, then said, “Well first of all, which is it? A cemetery or a graveyard?”

Adelaide blinked. “Pardon?”

“The place where your city buries the dead. Is it a cemetery or a graveyard?”

“I don’t rightly know,” she admitted. “Always thought they were the same.”

Azmih smiled thinly. “Cemeteries tend to be on their own, just a patch of ground where we commit the bodies of the deceased back to the earth. But graveyards tend to be on hallowed ground, attached to some sort of temple or church.”

Adelaide blinked again, as if he had just offered her some sort of revelation. “It’s a proper graveyard then,” she replied. “The chapel is small, but it’s right adjacent to it.”

Azmih nodded. “It would have to be powerful magic to fiddle with it, then.” He considered, then added, “I assume you can give me the names of the others who remember these deaths?”

“Sure can,” she confirmed. “Can invite a bunch of ’em into one place if that’d be helpful.”

“It might be,” Azmih agreed. “Though I doubt you want to draw attention to the whole affair.”

Adelaide waved a hand in dismissal. “This has been going on long enough that we’ve all been labeled odd. Wouldn’t be any more notice than usual if we did something. Though maybe we won’t make a to-do about your entry into town.”

“That would be for the best,” Azmih agreed. He hesitated than asked, “What do you want me to do?”

“Find out what’s happening!” Adelaide exclaimed. “If these folk are dead, how do we get their people to properly mourn ’em?”

This might be beyond your prevue, his silent companion warned. So be careful what kind of promises you make.

As if I don’t know, Azmih chided gently. Besides, if these folk are dead, then it most definitely is our problem.

If they’re dead and restless, his Death insisted.

Fiddling with the memory of the dead might not please our lady either, he replied, but he had to accept that she might be right.

“Forgive me, Adelaide, I want to help you and your friends get to the bottom of this. And I will do everything in my power. But, you may need to accept that this could be beyond my ability to manage. If there is sorcery involved-“

“You’d at least be able to tell us where to turn,” Adelaide insisted. “And please, call me Addy.”

“I just don’t want to give you the wrong impression,” Azmih insisted. “Or false hope.”

“Anything is better than nothing,” Adelaide replied, “and us common folk have no idea what to do. That’s why, when I saw Eliza’s letter, I thought ‘what could it hurt?'”

“Indeed,” Azmih replied softly.

“So… do I pay in advance?” Adelaide asked, arching a mud-colored eyebrow.

“Pay?” Azmih was momentarily confused. Then he shook his head vigorously. “I don’t even know if I can help you yet. So for now, why don’t we just worry about the bath and a good night’s rest?”

Adelaide relaxed. A smile brushed her lips and she nodded. “Sounds right fair. I’ll get the water started boiling.”

She shuffled out of the room and Azmih flopped onto the bed the moment she closed the door.

“How is it I always get myself into these messes?” he muttered.

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