Freebie Mondays: Payment Where Due (Part 8)

Freebie Mondays: Payment Where Due (Part 8)

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. Find part 7 here!

This story ended up way longer than I anticipated, but this is the final installment. Please be sure to let me know what you think (and if you’d like to see more Azmih)!
. . .

“It’s been awhile.”

The voice startled Azmih from sleep. One moment, he was shrouded in darkness, the next he was drenched in bright sunlight while a soft breeze and forest scents caressed his face. While his heart pounded rapidly in his chest, trying to recover from the shock, he felt as if he might tumble backward off the steep overhang that always occupied one edge of this familiar dream grove. But a strong arm grasped his shoulder and guided him into the shade cast by the Dryad’s tree.

“I’m sorry,” Angela’s playful voice struck his ears like ringing bells. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Think nothing of it,” Azmih reassured. He had his bearings now, though he wasn’t sure how the shock hadn’t tossed him free of the dream.

Magic, of course.

“It’s been a long couple of days.”

“I tried to check in with you last night,” Angela admitted as she applied pressure to his shoulder, forcing him to kneel in the long, swaying grass. “Couldn’t find you.”

“I didn’t sleep,” Azmih admitted with a tired smile. Which was probably why his transition into this dream had been so violently abrupt; Angela must have exerted a lot of effort to penetrate his exhaustion.

“Did you find your sorceress?” the dryad bubbled as she flopped onto the ground next to him. Rather than sitting a few feet across from him, she dropped all pretense of subtlety and folded her legs so that her knee pressed lightly against his.

Somehow he had hoped she would have forgotten about the flirting while he was away. He briefly considered saying something, but he still wasn’t sure how much of her behavior was how she treated everyone.

He cleared his throat, partly to cover how flustered he was by the physical contact, then said, “As a matter of fact, I did.”

“Oh, excellent!” Angela cheered, clapping her hands several times in rapid succession. She seemed genuinely pleased by the news. “And was she able to answer your questions?”

“I haven’t had a chance to ask them, but I’m certain she will. I must thank you again, Angela, for all your help. You have been my guiding light these past few days.”

Angela beamed and, for a moment, her bright eyes shone brighter in the sunlight than her flaming curls. “We fae creatures like to make sure our debts are repaid. But in this case, I’m genuinely pleased to have been of service to one who was of so great service to me.”

She leaned forward and placed her hand brazenly on Azmih’s thigh. But it was clear from the expression on her face this wasn’t meant as a flirtatious gesture; she wished to express genuine gratitude, something fae creatures rarely did.

In light of that, Azmih laid one of his pale hands gently over her sun-tanned skin and squeezed her fingers gently. “Have you thought about what I said?”

“About visiting Isabella’s mum?” She waited for him to nod, then bowed her head, uncharacteristically somber for a moment. “I have. And I think I’m going to do it. I want her to know that I took care of Isabella’s soul until you came along, as best I could.”

“She will appreciate that,” Azmih agreed. “It will give her soul peace to know her child didn’t suffer.”

Angela didn’t reply. She kept her head bowed, her eyes focused on the green grass. And she left her hand in Azmih’s, though she shifted it so she could grasp his hand in return. She left her hand there even after she looked up again to catch his eyes.

“I like you, Azmih,” she declared. “I don’t usually like people but… Well, you’re a special kind of person. You stop and look at things other people just trample over. People could learn a lot from you.”

Azmih stared at the dryad, unable to form a coherent response. Earning the favor of the fae was not an easy task, and he was entirely uncertain how he should feel about this proclamation. Fae creatures could be as tricky and troublesome as they were wise and helpful – the key was in knowing how to manage an interaction.

He was quickly losing all ground when it came to Angela.

Without waiting for a response, the Dryad slid her hand free of Azmih’s grasp and leapt to her feet. She planted her hands on her hips as she loomed over the necromancer, casting a light shadow over his face. “Did those townsfolk pay you yet?” she demanded.

Shocked that she had remembered his confession about his Death’s protests, he blinked several times before he managed to shake his head. “But they haven’t really had a chance yet. Everyone was exhausted by the time we got back.”

“Well,” Angela declared, folding her hands in front of her chest, “just you make sure they do. Or you tell them that they’ll upset a nearby fae creature – and no one wants that.”

Azmih chuckled, assuming this was an idle threat. “I will pass it along,” he pledged as he slid to his feet, though he had no such intention.

He wasn’t sure how he was supposed to exit the summer grove, but before he could so much as turn, Angela caught his arm again. “The drought…” she said softly. “Did you find the source of it?”

Again, her question caught him off guard. But this time, his mind caught up quickly. “I’m not sure, though I have a hunch.”

“Do tell,” Angela commanded, her tone coy again.

“Well… the missing townsfolk were being held captive in a magically hidden palace. I’m guessing that the original occupant of this hidden palace kept it magically folded between plains when he didn’t want anyone to access it, and allowed those plains to overlap when he wanted to make his abode accessible. That’s why we can move in and out of it, but can also walk straight through the walls when we don’t know it’s there.”

“Intriguing,” Angela murmured and motioned for him to go on.

“I’m guessing that spell draws the energy required to maintain it from its surroundings. That way the mage wouldn’t have had to trouble with it after it was set. Probably it doesn’t take much magic when no one’s around, but as soon as townspeople started occupying the palace, the cost of keeping them hidden increased.”

“So you think the land will stop being magically drained now that the spell no longer requires so much power to fuel it?”

“Maybe.” But Azmih lifted both of his hands with his palms facing upward. “But I could be wrong. It’s also entirely possible that the spell has been slowly and steadily draining the surrounding landscape for centuries and it has just now become noticeable. This type of magic lays outside my expertise, I’m afraid.”

Angela made a soft, thoughtful sound. “Theoretically, if one were to banish this hidden palace from our plain, that should free the land from its drain permanently?”

“Theoretically,” Azmih agreed. “I could mention it to the sorceress you helped me find. I believe she owes me a tiny bit of a favor.”

“I’d like that,” Angela agreed with a grin. She released his arm and stepped back toward her tree.

Azmih assumed her departure signaled the end of their conversation. He was expecting to wake up in bed the next moment but, instead, Angela turned and glanced at him over her shoulder.

“There is one more thing, Azmih. I would really like it if you’d visit me in person sometime soon.” She winked, lifted a hand to her lips and kissed it loudly. Then she waved the kissed hand in Azmih’s direction before tossing at him.

The dreamscape faded so quickly, he didn’t have a chance to react.

*   *   *

A high-pitched wail pierced Azmih’s ears, causing him to shoot upright in bed. He barely had enough presence of mind to cover himself with the sheet when he realized the scream had originated inside his room.

Adelaide, the innkeeper, stood only two feet inside the door. Her eyes were locked on the large golem in the corner across from Azmih’s bed. She clutched a black-swathed bundle against her chest and her legs trembled, barely able to keep her aloft.

“Adelaide!” Azmih called, hoping to break the flow of sound coming from her mouth.

His ploy succeeded. Adelaide’s jaw snapped shut, though her eyes remained wide and wild when she turned them in his direction.

“It’s just the golem from last night,” the necromancer reassured her gently, extending one hand in her direction. He didn’t dare rise though; he didn’t think she wanted a face full of his nude figure.

“I… I remember,” Adelaide admitted, her words halting. “But I… I didn’t realize it could… talk.” The last word was almost a squeak, it was so high-pitched.

“I only said hello,” the golem protested. The voice that flowed from its lips was the familiar echoing baritone the ruby creature always used, but this time the voice was accompanied by the soft screech of unoiled hinges.

“The golem won’t hurt you,” Azmih insisted, though he did cast the ruby-eyed golem a rueful look.

“Right…” Adelaide seemed to be regaining her wits. “I remember now, it helped you free everyone from those magical cells.”

Someone must have awakened before him to tell the tale of the heroic rescue. His bet was on old Oz.

“Is everything all right?” Azmih asked, nodding toward the bundle Adelaide still clutched against her chest.

“Oh!” The innkeeper jumped as if she had just remembered her purpose. “I just wanted to check on you since you hadn’t come down to breakfast. There’s food waiting for you, just so you know. And plenty of it. But I also… wanted to give you this.” Her cheeks flamed red as she extended the black bundle.

As soon as Azmih lifted his arms, she thrust the pile of black fabric into them. Instantly, Azmih recognized his own cloak, the one he had peeled off his body shortly before he fell into it. Which meant Adelaide must have snuck into his room at least once before – perhaps while it was still too dark to notice the golem perched in the corner.

Azmih smoothed his pale fingers across the freshly clean fabric and discovered fresh seams in areas that had previously frayed. When he unfurled it to slip it over his shoulders, a heavy bundle clattered to the floor.

“What’s this?” Azmih asked as he bent to retrieve it. The pouch’s innards rattled with barely contained coinage when he pulled it from the floor.

“Payment,” Adelaide declared, sounding quite pleased about the proclamation. “The town put it together as a little thanks for all your efforts. Oz covered your room, by the way, and I’ve decided all your meals should be on the house, so you should be all set. Eliza told me you don’t exactly stick around.”

Azmih didn’t have the heart to tell her he wasn’t usually welcome to stick around after he completed a task. Instead, he loosened the knot on the pouch and pried it open. The number and color of the coins he glimpsed within made his breath catch in his throat.

“I can’t take this,” he insisted, holding the pouch in Adelaide’s direction. “It’s far too much.”

Too much nothing, his silent companion chided, her voice suddenly loud in his head. You work for free far too often.

It’s hardly free if they’ve given me room and board.

“It’s yours,” Adelaide said, shrinking back toward the door, tucking her hands under her arms to indicate she wouldn’t take the pouch back. “All of us who were affected pitched in and all of us want you to have it. There are lots of families celebrating the return of lost loved ones today, and that’s not something we can ignore.”

Azmih frowned. He set the coin pouch in his lap and glanced again at its contents.

Come on, Azmih, just take it. You deserve to spend some time not sleeping on the cold, hard ground.

Azmih glanced at the golem sitting across from his bed. It wasn’t as if they were going to be staying at regular inns for the next little while. But there were plenty of things he could do with coin that he had gone without for a long while; that was true.

You’d have to stop complaining that people never pay me, he teased his silent companion.

That’s a bargain I’m more than willing to take, she replied, her tone gleeful.

“I don’t know what to say,” Azmih admitted, glancing again at Adelaide.

The innkeeper had already reached the door. “You don’t have to say anything,” she replied with a kind smile. “Just get dressed and come downstairs. There’s people who want to talk to you.”

*   *   *

Adelaide hadn’t been kidding when she told Azmih there was food aplenty waiting for him downstairs. Long after the necromancer was stuffed, the innkeeper dropped by his table to offer him more delectable treats, though he insisted he had been well enough fed. He expected there was an equally large evening meal waiting for him, as well as breakfast tomorrow morning if he stayed that long.

He wasn’t exactly in a hurry to leave, though the wanderlust was sure to take him now that there was little for him to do in town.

“I remember the man who commissioned these rubies,” Cersera admitted. She was one of the people who had been waiting to talk to Azmih, though they had spent a lot of time discussing the miss-firing of her magic before they got to the rubies. “I didn’t know him well, but I didn’t take him as the sort who wanted to reanimate the dead. He was more interested in constructs like your golem friend here.”

Azmih wasn’t sure if he should be reassured by that or not. After all, the mage had to have dabbled in re-animating the dead at some point if the rubies had originally occupied a skeleton.

“There’s nothing more you can tell me about him?” Azmih pressed. He didn’t want to be rude, but he had been looking long and hard for this information.

“I can tell you he was powerful,” Cersera admitted. “He specialized in transmutation. Eventually he started experimenting with transferring energy between aspects and objects. If you ask me, he wanted to find a way to transfer himself into an immortal body, but I can’t say for sure.”

“Do you know if he ever tried to transfer living souls into these constructs he built?” Azmih asked, glancing at the ruby-studded golem crouched beside their table. Most of the inn’s occupants had given it a wide berth, but Adelaide had also seated them in a corner so that most people wouldn’t have to pass by to carry out their business.

“I don’t know,” Cersera admitted. “But it doesn’t seem like his style. He was convinced that the energy to create life came from outside forces. It’s more likely that he drew on those for his experiments.”

He’d have had to dabble in necromancy to accomplish something like that, Azmih’s silent companion informed him when he didn’t answer right away.

True. But necromantic power isn’t forbidden. It’s the way he used it that mattered.

“Are you sure you can’t tell me anything else?” Azmih ventured.

Cersera sighed. She spent several moments swirling the contents of her ale mug around – so many that Adelaide deposited another in front of her, assuming hers had run out. Then Cersera offered the necromancer a weary smile. “Let me do some digging,” she said. “I keep records of all my customers. I might be able to put you in contact with someone who knew him better. But as I’m sure you can tell, a mage’s longevity isn’t always what they hope it will be.”

“I’ve noticed,” Azmih replied with a chuckle. “And I’m actually quite surprised to find a mage as powerful as you are living in a place this small.”

Cersera threw her head back and laughed, momentarily drawing several gazes to their corner. “I don’t always live here,” she replied with a wink. “But also, powerful mages don’t always want people to be able to find them all the time. I’ve made my fair share of enemies.”

“I’ll be sure to keep it quiet that we ran into each other then,” Azmih pledged. “Any guidance you can give me is greatly appreciated. I need to make sure my friend, here, doesn’t violate my lady’s rules. I’d rather not dismantle him and discover he was innocent after the fact.”

“I’d rather you didn’t discuss dismantling me so casually,” the ruby-studded golem interjected, drawing another chuckle from the sorceress.

“I’m sure he wouldn’t go to all this trouble if he was planning on putting an end to you,” she said. “And besides, I owe you both a great debt. I’m more than willing to do you this favor in return for the one you did me.”

Azmih raised his ale mug, more than happy to drink to that.

Within moments, a jovial figure emerged from the afternoon crowd and settled into one of the table’s free chairs without a word of warning. Old Oz passed his grin around to each of the table’s residents – including the golem – before he fixed his gaze on Azmih.

“I don’t suppose you’ll be heading out any time soon?” the grizzled merchant asked, wagging his eyebrows for emphasis.

“Thought I might go tomorrow,” Azmih admitted. “I never stay long in one place.”

“Headed back the way you came?” Oz pressed.

“Not really, though I could leave through the same gate.” Azmih had a fair idea he knew what Oz was getting at.

“Let me give you a ride,” the merchant insisted. “I’d love to have company on the return journey and I can make arrangements for you going on ahead if you need.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Azmih insisted. “But I’d love to travel with you, at least for a little while.”

“Great!” Oz crowed, reaching across the table to pat the necromancer on the shoulder. “I bet your friend will fit in the back.” Oz jerked his thumb toward the golem.

“He might fit,” Azmih agreed, though he frowned. “But will he be too heavy?”

“Don’t worry about that,” Cersera interjected. “I can provide you with a charm that’ll make him light as a feather. At least for a little while. And before you object, it’s the least I can do. Remember, your golem friend helped me too.”

“Well, my friend,” Azmih addressed the golem, “it seems you have successfully made more friends for yourself.”

“It is a strange feeling,” the golem replied, its tone thoughtful. “I do believe that I might enjoy it.”

Azmih chuckled. “Me too,” he admitted, though he doubted it would last.

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