Larem raised his hands to shield his face from the stone and bone fragments that were sure to hit him—yet rather than the satisfying crunch of an undead monster smashed to bits, there came only a muted thud and a hiss of displeasure.
"Damned thing caught it!" Beetle cried.
A crash shook the yard as the wight tossed the pillar aside.
"Have at you, bastard!" Beetle's palms slapped stone.
Larem raised a hand. "No!"
A body collided with the wight. Rattling and squelches rose as Beetle laid into the creature. It sounded like the undead just stood there, taking the hits.
"I tire of this," it said at last.
Larem struggled to stand and intervene, but Dargley appeared and bear-hugged him.
Beetle snarled at his foe. "Back to the Abyss with ye!" A snap of bone, and he screeched. "Muh finger!" His cry devolved into incoherent threats.
The wight's hiss cut through the babbles. "For every hour you delay in bringing the Weeping Blade to me, I shall gnaw an inch of flesh from him."
Larem trembled, despising himself for his helplessness. "If... if we somehow find the blade and bring it, will you spare his life?"
"Idjit! Don't bargain with the beast."
Another whack of bone, and Beetle groaned.
"This theft and treachery requires repayment," said the wight. "Blood must be spilled to nullify the spirit within the blade. Yet I will not be unmerciful. You will be given the choice of whose life is surrendered. But make it quickly: you have until tomorrow at midnight to deliver the blade to the Maidens' Midden, unless you wish your companion unable to even crawl into his own grave."
Beetle screamed as the creature dragged him off. Larem tried to stagger after, but Dargley held him fast, moaning and keening. At last, Beetle's cries disappeared, and the two of them stood alone in the graveyard.
Larem spat in disgust. "That didn't go quite as planned, did it?"
∗ ∗ ∗
Larem bowed his head into his hands. After hauling him out of the graveyard—over his shoulders, no less—Dargley had deposited him in the crook of an alley doorway and hunkered down nearby to sob.
Larem had no idea what part of Underbridge they'd fled to. No way to orient himself to any of their warren boltholes, and Dargley couldn't find them alone. Not since first losing his sight had Larem felt so useless. So vulnerable.
What would the wight be doing to Beetle at this very moment? What could they do about it? No one would give heed to a blind beggar's pleas for help, thinking it a swindle. Even if they enchanted a substitute blade, Larem didn't doubt the wight would discern a fake.
As he considered their bleak options, a wheedling voice caught his ear.
"Looksee here. Two leetle meece. Wassun they has? Glit? Glum?"
A second sniggered. "Weepsy, ain'tsee? Raggum and baggum."
Larem suppressed a moan. Could this night get any worse? He recognized the guttertalk that had recently become fashionable among some of the younger beggars in Underbridge—little clans of street toughs were always forming and dissolving here, left mostly alone by the larger gangs as long as they didn't get too big for their trousers. Dargley must've neared one of their hideouts, or else they'd been followed, seen as easy prey—not an unfair estimation.
As Larem listened to their approach with dread, he noted an odd rhythm to their gait. After each shuffling step came a whisking noise, like a length of rope being dragged behind. Then their reek assailed him: a stench of sewage, a bestial musk... and damp fur.
Not just gang members. Wererats in shifted form, tails trailing through the alley rubbish.
Dargley jumped to his feet. "Oooosie pillygorp"
"Wassee chatter? Gottsa chucker at we's?" Anger tightened the first gang member's voice. Now Larem could distinguish the clicking of elongated teeth and scrabbling of talons over stone.
"No, I swear he's not making fun of you," Larem said. "Please, we've nothing. Beggars on the street with only rags to warm us. Be merciful."
"Slickspit speaksit. Beggums? Nawsayit. Gots glit, betsa."
There came the sound of stomping, and Larem realized his companion had charged the wererats.
"Gotta keen edgit! Guttem red!"
Several fleshy smacks resounded. Metal clanged. Dargley's roar turned to a wail. A heavy body hit the ground and the fight ended before Larem barely registered the exchange.
One wererat coughed and gagged, while the other screeched.
"Soons stitched and gutback, unnastand? Gonnas scalp all."
Larem braced for another attack, but claws clicked over stone and drew away. One must be dragging the other out of the alley. Once the sounds of their departure had faded, he got on hands and knees and searched for his companion's body.
Desna, please, show mercy. He couldn't lose both in one night.
Larem's hand finally found Dargley's head. Roughened skin all over. Half-melted nose and pitted cheeks scarred by acidic secretions, like Larem's eyes.
He patted down Dargley's body for damage. He still breathed, at least, though with a ragged edge to each intake. What had he used to drive the wererats off? It had sounded like a blade fight. But since Dargley's gone simple, Beetle and Larem hadn't allowed him to carry a weapon, certain he'd hurt himself.
His fingers touched a hilt, and a jolt of energy shot through him.
Larem jerked away. Then, with a shaking hand, he found the weapon again. This time, the tingle of power was undeniable, and he picked out a spiraling teardrop design that coiled up the hilt to a pair of eyes engraved on the crosspiece.
The Weeping Blade.
His heart crumbled as he felt the dagger's keen edge.
"Oh, Dargley. What've you done?"
See and despair.
An invisible claw clutched Larem's mind and yanked. The world twisted about him, and for the first time in years, he could see.
But not the alley. A cavern. No—a tomb. The Tomb of Annuram.
In one corner of the ancient chamber, a fire lit a makeshift camp. Three men argued among themselves until one rose and rushed toward the back of the cavern. The other two restrained him, going so far as to bind his arms and legs and leaving him to struggle while they finished their simple meal.
Larem knew the scene well, though he'd never seen it from this angle.
Beetle continued to struggle even after Larem and Dargley fell asleep, but after another hour of futile escape attempts, he slipped into a snooze himself.
Mere minutes after Beetle started snoring, Dargley's eyes opened, and he rolled to his feet. After ensuring he hadn't woken the others, he slipped off to the area he'd just helped Larem keep Beetle from visiting.
He returned half an hour later and stared at the other two with a wild look. The inhuman expression slowly faded, until he appeared closer to his normal self, though a dangerous glint remained in his eyes. He returned to his sleeping roll, the bulge of a new dagger under his leather armor.
Scenes flashed by: Dargley pocketing an employer's pay and claiming they'd been cheated. Dargley altering maps to guide them into dangerous territories. Dargley not warning them of traps... delaying coming to their aid in fights... cutting their horses loose to strand them with devils hot on their scent...
With each betrayal, Dargley bent more to the dagger's sway. Yet he wasn't completely gone. His expression during these episodes looked fraught, strained, as if something at his core fought complete surrender.
That last bit of the original Dargley got its chance during their trek through a kobold-infested swamp. With the natural heat and humidity, neither Larem nor Beetle paid particular attention to the sweat coursing down Dargley's face and neck as he waged his internal war.
The dagger's spirit knew of a giant flytrap that stalked the area, and wanted to see the effects of the creature's acidic secretions on human flesh. But this insidious ploy gave Dargley the impetus he needed for a final, fierce contest of wills.
At the dagger's prompting, Dargley spotted the giant flytrap, its mottled green exterior almost perfectly camouflaged against a nearby mossy mound. Four toothy jaws waited for unsuspecting prey to wander too close.
Dargley let Larem and Beetle wander ahead, claiming the need to drain muck out of his boots. As they forged off into the thick foliage, Dargley raised one hand toward their backs in silent farewell.
Then, as the dagger's spirit vainly tried to wrest control of his body, he sprinted for the flytrap and threw himself and the dagger into the monstrous plant's nearest maw.
His tortured screams, though muffled, had been loud enough to draw the other two running back, blades bared. They'd assaulted the remaining three sets of jaws, chopping barbed vines, dodging tentacle-like roots, growing increasingly reckless as they fought to rescue their companion.
Then jaws clamped around Beetle's legs and dragged him down. Desperate, Larem had produced an explosive magical amulet and flung it into one of the plant's remaining mouths. The pod had exploded, sending the creature slumping to the ground—and sending acid splattering into Larem's eyes.
Larem wanted to look away, to forego sight once again if it meant not having to watch this, but the vision wouldn't let him. Helpless, he watched himself stagger blindly to the pod holding Dargley, still screaming, and lever it open with his sword. Together, they had hauled Beetle out of the monster's sizzling remains.
Their burns had healed over time. The creature's acid bite had cauterized Beetle's severed legs, keeping him from from bleeding out, while Larem's eyes never recovered. In a way, Dargley was the worst: unable to breathe inside the suffocating tomb of the plant's pod, he had gone soft in the head, and never spoken right again. After that, it was all a slow and agonizing path back to Magnimar's filthiest alleys.
Dargley's plan to kill himself and save the men he called brothers had failed dramatically—yet not completely. Due to the damage to Dargley's mind, the dagger's influence over him had been subdued. Still, he clung to the cursed blade out of a buried impulse—and it continued to prompt actions he didn't understand.
More recent scenes flickered through Larem's mind. Dargley catching coins before they landed in Larem's beggar bowl... swapping out Master Ulus' healing elixirs for worthless mixes... supplying Beetle with ale to fuel his fury.
Your despair has been delicious.
Larem's world turned black again. He still clutched the dagger's hilt. Dargley remained insensate before him. His arm quivered as he raised the dagger over the prone man's chest.
Pay him back for destroying your lives. It's the least he deserves.
"Does he?" Larem whispered. "All his actions stemmed from you."
He took the first step, thinking to claim me. That was his downfall. None can own me. But I could abide a partnership.
"With a blind man? You'd cast me aside within the first week."
With my guidance, there will be no end to your rewards. I know where hoards of treasure are buried. Wouldn't you enjoy returning to your former life?
"And what happens to the others?"
The cripple and the halfwit? Damaged goods would just hold you back.
Larem cocked his head. "Perhaps you're right. It is time to move on. However, I also owe money to some quite persistent men. These buried treasures you mentioned..."
The smallest trove I can lead you to is enough to pay them back, purchase a healing spell for your eyes, and outfit your own mercenary band.
"What of the wight? It'll continue to pursue us, and I don't relish the thought of constant running."
With hired swords and spellcasters at your side, the next time it shows itself, you can reduce it to so much offal and ash.
"True enough. Very well." Larem stood and stepped over his fallen companion.
He dealt Dargley a swift heel-kick to the ribs. The man moaned but didn't wake.
"He'll suffer more, living with what he's done."
I anticipate great things from you already.
Larem grinned. "Let's settle some debts."
∗ ∗ ∗
Larem's feet kept sinking into the muck as he waited, hands clasped behind his back, shoulders wide—a confident posture he'd not held in years.
He stood on the Maidens' Midden, one of the Dungsweepers' Guilds refuse yards, so named for the bargain-priced brothel that stood near its gate. A few steps away loomed a storm drain large enough to lead a horse through. The unique bouquet of raw sewage hung about like a rancid fog. Breathing through his mouth made the stench bearable, though he clamped down on the occasional stomach spasm. Hopefully he wouldn't have to wait long. But then, if he did, he had much larger problems than a simple stink.
Ah. By the cursing and squelching, his anticipated guest had at last arrived. His pulse accelerated as the newcomer summitted the mound and spotted him.
"I hardly enjoy being called like a servant," Samphy said. "Especially to such a delightful place."
Larem bowed. "I wouldn't have asked to meet here without good reason."
"What's this about, then? You can't possibly have the money already." A sly chuckle. "Unless you lied about not having it in the first place. Or stole it. In either case, I might require a little extra to forgive you."
"I don't have it yet, no," Larem said. "But I've determined the location of an ancient treasure that will more than repay what I owe. I simply need you to allow me to retrieve it."
Samphy wheezed laughter. "You think I'll let you run off after some imaginary treasure? You'll never return."
Larem drew the Weeping Blade from his rags. On contact, the spirit's voice slipped into his head.
Canceling your debts more directly? Bold, but admirable.
Samphy's voice tensed. "Beggarman wants a fight? I can't say this will be fair... but it could be fun."
"No fighting," Larem said. "Instead, I offer a token of sincerity. This blade originates from the very treasure I speak of. Alone, it's worth ten times my debt, but I give it freely as a guarantee."
What? You dare—
"Catch." Larem tossed the Weeping Blade toward Samphy. The thug swore, but by the lack of a thump or splash, Larem knew he'd caught it.
Larem spun toward the storm drain and yelled, "I choose him as the blood price! Take your sacrifice and begone!"
A resounding clang let him know the drain's grate had just swung open, admitting another anticipated guest.
"What the hell...?" cried Samphy.
A roar. A clatter of bones. A scream and a body slapped into the muck.
Larem focused on where the air held an unearthly chill. "You've got your damned blade back. Where's Beetle? If he's not—"
"I's here and I's thirsty," Beetle called from by the grate. "This creature wouldn't s'much as let me have a sip."
"Our bargain is complete," the wight said in its sepulchral tones. "Though I question the soul that sealed it."
"You never said it had to be one of us. Just that I had a choice." Larem pointed at it. "Swear you'll bury that thing deep."
Laughter made his spine clench. "Where I take it, none shall discover until the very foundations of this world are undone."
There was another clatter of bones, and then the storm drain's grate clanged shut. The sound of steps retreated into the distance.
He trudged over to the grate and found Beetle with arms wrapped over a bar to hold himself above the sludge. He tried to check him for wounds, but the other man slapped his hands away.
"Were you tortured?"
Beetle blew a raspberry. "Nicked me a bit, but what's a few more scars? How'd you convince that thing you's gots the blade?
For a moment, Larem almost told him everything—what Dargley had done and how they'd ended up destitute.
Then he shrugged. "Stole an ornate blade from a smithy and convinced a drunk wizard to lay a charm on it. Seemed to suffice."
Beetle laughed. "There's the scoundrel I's know! Always ready wit' a fool's gamble. Where's Dargley got off to?"
"Left him behind so he wouldn't get hurt." He sat, unmindful of the sewage seeping through his threadbare pants. "This whole encounter got me thinking. Perhaps it's time we returned to our old ways in a new fashion."
"Wot... back to adventurin'?"
"Couldn't be worse than squatting around these streets. You can be my eyes, Dargley can be your legs, and I'll provide enough intellect to make up for both of you."
Beetle chortled. "Worth a try, eh? But where we gonna begin?"
Larem grinned as he reviewed the mental map the dagger's spirit had sketched out for him during their chat.
"Oh, I've encountered rumors of certain treasures that are just waiting for the right opportunists to come along..."
Coming Next Week: A glimpse of Count Varian Jeggare's past in the city of Korvosa in Dave Gross's "The Fencing Master"!
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