Larem hissed and dropped the silver piece, yet his fingertips burned from the frigid contact.
The person remained before him, and Larem could sense its silent mockery. He reached for his dagger.
"Who are you?"
His tormenter shifted with a creak of leather. Its every movement groaned and crackled with age.
No, not age, Larem realized as he caught another whiff of grave dust. Death. An undead creature leered at him, having concealed its nature until now through some magic. The knowledge wrapped his heart in thorns and stopped him from drawing the blade.
The thing's voice held all the black promise of a bottomless pit. "Wise. Now, where are the other two? Those thieves you call brothers."
Larem fought down shivers. "Dead. They're beyond your grasp, whatever you wished to accomplish here. I'm just a blind beggar. Leave me be."
A long sniff tickled his hair. "Not dead. I smell them on you." Bony fingers wrapped about his throat, carrying the same sapping chill as the coin. Strength fled Larem's limbs, and he gagged at the carrion reek and clammy touch. "I've been searching for you since I woke. You've something of mine."
The dead creature's hand tightened. "At first, when I detected you hiding among the rat rabble of this city, I thought it a ploy. An attempt to throw me off track. With each one I killed, I expected you to rise up in righteous fury and revenge, as you were once famed to do. Yet with each, you disappointed. Have the Bloody Blade Brothers truly fallen so low? What do you hide behind these rags?"
Fingertips hooked the leather strap and yanked. The worn cord securing it snapped, and Larem rocked back.
A laugh like skulls knocking together. "How tragic. Larem the Long-Sighted now unable to spy a fly buzzing about his nose."
Larem swallowed. "Who are you?"
"You know who I am. I've forgotten my living name, but I remember you three sneaking through the tomb, pilfering without regard for the dead. Well, the dead have no regard for you, except for what you've taken from us."
It creaked again, withered flesh shifting around dry joints. "I know you still have it. The Weeping Blade. I feel it within the city bounds. One of you keeps it hidden. I'll have it back or I'll have your souls." Rotting fingers stroked his cheek. "For every day that you refuse further, I will claim another life. And not just scraggly beggars. Women. Children."
"We don't... we can't..."
"When you change your mind, find me in the graveyard behind the shrine of Sarenrae in Underbridge under moonlight. Until then, enjoy knowing you're the reason for this bloodshed. I'll be watching."
After a final chilling caress, the creature shuffled off.
Larem didn't know how long he sat there, sweating and shivering. Samphy's threats paled compared to this. Could it be possible? Were they the unwitting cause of the death plaguing the city's poor and destitute?
He lurched to his feet. By the time he reached Seerspring Garden, he'd collected further aches and bruises by running into building corners, crate stacks, and pedestrians who thrust him back out of the way with well-aimed elbows and knees. He used the gurgling of the fountain to get his bearings and then staggered east until he reached the gates of the Merchants' Guildhall, lurching through the throng of laborers and traders who milled about.
"Dargley," he cried. "Where are you? Dargley!"
He misjudged the distance to the Guildhall's wall and cracked his head against it. He reeled, spun about, and fell.
A hand grabbed his and hauled him upright. Sticky fingers patted his face as he panted.
Larem clung to the other man's bulk.
"Take me to Beetle."
∗ ∗ ∗
Beetle's voice slurred loudly as they entered the tavern.
"Matsy, darling. Get over 'ere and gimme a sight worth seeing."
"Burn you, Beetle," came a gruff male voice. "Watch the door, not the staff."
"Bah! 'S too early for any troublemakers. I'll toss any out on their arses, dontcha worry."
Larem navigated the maze of tables with Dargley's help. When they reached Beetle, he didn't notice their arrival until Larem nudged him.
"Boys! Pull up a stool. Piss-poor slop, but it's on me tonight. "
He slurped from what Larem guessed to be a tankard—a guess he confirmed by slapping it away.
"'Ey! What'ser problem? I said I's paying, didn't I?"
Larem tried to glare through the reaffixed leather strap. "How can you afford this?"
"Got me a job, didn't I tell yeh? I's..." Beetle hiccupped. "I's a bouncer. I bounce 'em in. I bounce 'em out. Never ain't nobody think they gonna get walloped by a man who don't come up to their balls. But when I bite, they all holler the same."
Larem gritted his teeth. Bouncer? More likely a spectacle the tavern owner figured would draw in extra business.
"Listen to me. I know who's been causing the beggar deaths."
"Ain't you the clever bastard." Beetle burped. "Whosa fiend?"
"We are. We're the reason these people have been dying."
By Beetle's prolonged silence, Larem wagered the news had brought him at least halfway around to sobriety.
Larem turned them away from the growing crowd. "You kept the Weeping Blade, didn't you? After we agreed it was too dangerous, you've kept it stashed all these years."
Beetle's words hung heavy with a drunken pout. "Dunno whatcher talking 'bout."
Larem reached out and, by luck, caught the collar of Beetle's shirt, crusted with dribble and drink. "The Weeping Blade! From the Tomb of Annuram, the one we broke into a few years before... before the accident. The tomb's guardian is here. It believes we still have the blade, and it's going to keep killing innocents until we return it."
Beetle tore Larem's hand away. "We stole a hunnerd cursed bits of metal o'er the years. You think I'm gonna remember one shiny chit from all the rest? And if I had that sorta treasure, I'da sold it quick as hot piss."
"You swear on your mother's bones you don't have it?"
"I'll swear on your bones if you don't stop with this. Ain't got it and never did."
Larem slumped on the bench. Beetle wouldn't lie straight out like this, no matter how deep in the slop. Which meant the creature concealed a deeper agenda or had errantly tracked them down.
"Weeping Blade, eh? What made it so special?"
"Cursed dagger," Larem said. "Stories said it helped you win fights by overwhelming your enemy with despair, but any wielder eventually wound up going insane. Which is why we agreed to leave the dagger in the gravedust."
"We did. I recall that conversation clearly because Dargley and I had to physically restrain you from taking it until you saw sense."
"What sorta fiend was it that spoke to you?"
"Undead of some kind. Intelligent. Able to work some magic, as it disguised its true nature until it confronted me."
"Would 'splain why no one's caught the bastard yet. Notta ghoul though."
"Nor a lich. I doubt anything that powerful would've gone undetected for so long."
"S'more than your average wraith too. Maybe a wight of some sort?"
Larem bit his tongue. A wight. Far beyond just an animated corpse—a creature deliberately raised by foul magic to guard a burial site and any treasure stashed there. Relentless, powerful, and intelligent. This one must've been a spellcaster in its previous existence, or else had some other sort of magic that let it track them and conceal itself in the city.
Still didn't explain why it believed they had the dagger. Had another band of adventurers—or opportunists, as they once called themselves—taken it after them and somehow set the creature on their scent?
He scrubbed his forehead. "What are we going to do?"
Beetle clamped a hand on his shoulder. "Do? What'd we always do with any unholy beastie? We kill the damn thing."
∗ ∗ ∗
The church to Sarenrae stood desolate under the enormous pilings of the Irespan, the ancient, shattered monument that kept the district called Underbridge tucked into eternal shadow. The church had been built during Magnimar's founding years by a Sarenite cleric named Vosten in an attempt to bring a guiding light to the city... until Sczarni thugs beat him and his acolytes to death when he refused to pay into their protection racket. Since then, the church had languished untended. Like most landmarks in Underbridge, it had become an unspoken center of black-market commerce where foul deeds went unnoticed and fouler packages were swapped in the dark.
Larem tried not to breathe in the stink of rot that stained the area. Would the three of them add to those buried there alongside Vosten, their names long forgotten?
He stood twenty paces before Vosten's grave, marked by a tilted gray pillar overgrown with thorny weeds. Beetle had described it and the surrounding layout when they arrived. Rows of salt-stained pillars lined either side of him, foundations cracked, any inscriptions worn away by a century of sea winds and vandalism.
After scouting to ensure the wight hadn't preceded them, Dargley and Beetle had slipped off to their hiding spot.
As he waited, Larem fiddled with the dagger tucked into his waistband. The moon hung low enough to gleam across the ruins—Beetle had scoffed when Larem claimed moonlight possessed a different texture on the skin than sunlight. Like a candle beaming through a sheet of ice.
Or perhaps the feeling came from the cold sweat that slicked his neck and chest.
A salty breeze whispered past, and dead vines and leaves crackled under his feet whenever he shifted his weight. A creature rustled in a far corner of the yard. Larem stiffened, but whatever it was pattered off on four paws. If any vermin of the two-legged variety lurked about, they wisely kept their presence concealed, perhaps put off by a blind man standing sentry in the middle of a graveyard.
He imagined himself a statue set in place to watch over the spirits of the dead and ensure their safe passage into the afterlife. If they survived this night, he considered visiting one of Pharasma's temples and paying a copper to polish an hourglass in gratitude to the Lady of Graves.
"Do you have it?"
One instant he stood alone; the next, the wight filled the space before him, a sucking presence that made his throat tighten. How? Larem hadn't heard a thing until it spoke and its putrid aura enveloped him.
Quelling a shudder, he forced himself to stand tall. There'd been a time when he'd faced far deadlier creatures than this—though then he'd had his sight and held a length of sharp steel. Or better yet, a bow.
"I spoke with the others," he said, proud that his voice held firm. "One revealed that he did indeed keep the Weeping Blade, and I humbly ask forgiveness for the desecration."
The air temperature dropped several degrees. "Then where is it? Why haven't you brought it as required?"
"Unfortunately, my companion buried it outside the city. I can tell you exactly where to find it if you'll give me but a few minutes."
Again that long snuffling. "Liar. I smell the blade's stink on you. You've been near it recently. What trickery are you and the two beating hearts in the shadows planning?"
Larem frowned. On him? How? Before he could give this revelation further thought, a skeletal fist gripped his tunic and held him in place. Once more, vitality seeped out of him, leaving his limbs trembling.
"I despise thieves and I abide a lying tongue even less. Shall I tear yours out?"
Summoning a last scrap of strength, Larem drew his dagger and slashed upward—not at the wight, but at the length of fabric it held. The well-honed edge sliced through the rotten cloth, and he threw himself backward, shouting, "Now!"
A roar echoed through the graveyard as Beetle and Dargley threw themselves against the pillar they'd crouched behind. There was a grinding noise, and then a greater crack as it toppled toward the wight.
Coming Next Week: Desperate plots in the final chapter of Josh Vogt's "The Weeping Blade"!
Josh Vogt is a freelance author with short stories published in such venues as Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and Shimmer. For more information, see his website at jrvogt.com.
Illustration by Mariana Gomez