"Alms!" Larem called to the afternoon marketplace crowd. "Have mercy and spare a coin. A blind man's blessing brings good fortune."
"Droble gamman! Obbly tolt!"
Larem winced as Dargley spouted his usual gibberish. He leaned over and nudged his fellow beggar.
"You're to keep your lips sealed, remember?"
Despite the leather strap over his eyes, Larem sensed Dargley beaming a grin in clueless innocence, the attitude that had defined his existence since the head injury. Sighing, Larem took up his beggar bowl and shook the three copper coins it held.
"Alms," he cried. "Desna smiles upon those who pity the downtrodden."
Shouting rose above the din of Magnimarian hawkers, livestock, and cart traffic.
"Outta the way. Move it, you low-browed dungknuckles. You's never seen a man with no legs? Move it or I'll bite your arse and piss on your robe."
Larem sighed again. Had Beetle been drinking? Where'd he get the coin for it?
"Kick me again and you'll be missing some tasty toes."
Larem tuned one ear to listen for any gangs or guard patrols while the other picked up Beetle's shuffling approach. Grunts alternated with slaps of flesh on stone as Beetle swung along on his hands until he plopped onto the mat to Larem's left. The man reeked of sour wine, and the air about him gained an oily texture that made Larem want to scrub his face with sackcloth.
"Thanks for that," Larem said. "We'll be lucky if anyone gets near us for the rest of the day. What've I told you about threats?"
Beetle snorted. "They work well enough for this lot. Looking down on me like I's dirt."
"People look down on you because you don't come above their waistlines," Larem said. "You just decide to take it personally."
"Bilgrew mothy woll!"
"Too true, Dargley. Beetle needs to control his anger before someone runs him over with a coach."
Beetle spat into the dirt. "Let 'em try. First horse that tries to stamp me out will get its hooves ripped off."
Larem couldn't hide a smile at the idea. Once Beetle might've followed through on such a threat. Oversized shoulders and hands had lent him a freakish strength that made him a feared fighter in their band before...well...
Before this. Now those muscled arms only served to drag Beetle's mangled half-a-body around Beacon's Point, hauling him from one alehouse to another.
Beetle gargled mucus and spat again. "Listen, lads. I've got news."
Larem held his bowl out, though he knew no one stood near enough to toss. "I don't care which minor noble is mucking about with which courtesan at the House of Welcome."
"Shut it. Or I'll start spreading rumors that you've got good eyes under there."
Larem adjusted the blindfold covering the acid-scarred pits where his eyes used to be. "What's this news, then?"
Beetle rubbed his hands, calluses scraping like rough stone on leather. "They found another body stuffed in a sewer drain. Just outside the north end of Washers' Row."
Larem stiffened. "Same as the other three?"
"Ayup. Head gone. Chest split wide and all the innards gutted."
"Any clue as to the dead's identity?"
"City watch was stumped, but ol' Beetle knows his rascals. It were Tolly. He went missing from his spot down by the docks last week and I spotted that bird tattoo on his ankle when they hauled him away—the ugly pigeon he always loved showin' off."
"It was an osprey. And if so, that's four deaths. All victims from Rag's End."
Dargley pressed in close and moaned.
Larem patted his knee. "Not to fear. Nobody would snatch you in the middle of a crowded market."
Beetle cleared his throat with the grace of a rusty hinge. "So...what's we gonna do about it?"
"Course. I ain't spouting off 'cause I love me pretty voice." He dropped to a hoarse whisper. "A fiend's loose in Magnimar—right 'ere in this neighborhood, you betcha—and nobody dealt death to fiends like the Bloody Blade Brothers."
Larem slumped. "We aren't those men anymore. Haven't been in a long time. There's nothing we can do but pray whoever—or whatever—is behind the murders is dealt with quickly."
"Serious?" Beetle's fetid breath huffed over Larem. "It's been two months and ain't nobody got a lead on the bastard. Not even those Caydenites what set up the new bar 'cross the street from The Pig—and I made sure to check in with them a few times to be sure."
"I thought you were banned from there after stealing those bottles of holy wine."
"Not my fault they didn't lock the place up nice and tight. 'Sides, who's gonna turn down a petitioner seekin' a bit of courage to brave these dangerous streets? But all them priests are passin' out is worthless talismans and prayers."
"A cleric's protective measures are nothing to be scoffed at."
"Yeah? Look where they got us. I mean... don't, y'know, look... but..."
Larem grimaced. "I know what you mean. It doesn't change anything. We're not in any shape to confront such a foe."
Beetle gripped his arm hard enough to make him drop his bowl. Coins clinked about.
"Rag's End folks be our people now. Who's gonna protect 'em but us? City watch don't give a spit who gets splattered, 'cept for having to clean up the mess. Nobles figure a few beggar deaths means less on the streets. Jaijarko and his Sczarni thugs only care if it means another gang edgin' in on their territory."
"M'point is this is a cause. A reason to fight!"
"For you, being looked at askance is reason to fight."
This time the gobbet of spit struck Larem's cheek. "Lost your sight and lost your courage. I's shamed to squat beside you."
Beetle continued grumbling as he propped up on his hands and lugged himself off. Larem patted the stones and dirt until he found the three copper coins and replaced them in the bowl.
Dargley plucked at his tunic. "Plobbem gardley toodle?"
Larem wiped at his grimy cheek with a filthier sleeve. "He'll sleep off his anger and rejoin us tomorrow."
"Yes. I'm sure." He fished out a coin and placed it in Dargley's hand. "Go get yourself a hot bun. I'll meet you by the main fountain in front of the Merchants' Guildhall in a couple hours. We're sure to encounter a few generous souls there."
Dargley's footsteps pattered away, and Larem settled into his usual begging routine. Odd to feel so alone within the throng of merchants, browsers, and buyers. And why the twinge of guilt at brushing off Beetle's urgings?
Foolish to think any of them possessed a fraction of their former skill. Foolish to believe they could still make a difference.
When the swell of afternoon commerce ebbed, he gathered his meager belongings. The cheap dagger he kept under his mat got rolled up inside it. He then used the rolled mat to tap his way out of the market, bowl outstretched as he shuffled past shops, stables, and warehouses. He headed for Dockway, following the main road along Beacon's Point's docks.
The salty tang of the sea briefly wiped away the stink of the dirty, sweating crowds. Then the smell returned in force as he shuffled through one of the area's many slums. There, the ramshackle buildings crowded closer, casting cold shadows. Social chatter turned to mutters, whimpers, and grumbles, and the air grew pungent with unwashed refuse.
As he passed one alley—noted by the extra echo to his steps—several people moved to stand in his way. His rolled mat bumped a set of shins, and he stopped, jingling the coins in his bowl while internally bracing.
"Pity the destitute and enjoy blessed dreams."
The nearest man, a heavy breather who smelled of burnt oil, snatched the bowl away and dumped the coins out.
"You owe our master a hundred times this," came his smoke-roughened voice.
Larem swallowed. "As I explained last week, Samphy, the salves didn't work. I won't pay for ineffective remedies."
The flung bowl caught Larem in the forehead, and he stumbled back a step. He resisted the urge to rub his skull, knowing weakness only encouraged thugs to greater cruelty.
"You calling Master Ulus a liar?" Samphy had perfected the art of threatening growls. To Larem, who had heard much worse from fanged beasts as they attempted to devour him, the gang enforcer's sounded a pale imitation.
"I make no such claims. However, even if I were to pay, it's only been a week since your last visit. How was I to procure funds in such a short time?"
The gut-punch dropped him to his knees. The second blow cracked his head to the stones, where he lay gasping as red and yellow explosions flashed through the darkness of his skull.
Samphy crouched beside him. "Master Ulus doesn't enjoy having his reputation as a healer slighted. He also doesn't enjoy welchers. Now, I'm to collect the bill or collect a body. I'd prefer the first, but if there's no other choice..." He patted Larem's cheek. "You've got one more week."
One of Samphy's companions trod on an ankle as they stepped over him, drawing a last gasp of pain before they headed off.
Once alone, Larem felt about until he retrieved the bowl. Clutching it and the mat—with the dagger still inside—he crawled into the nearby alley to huddle and recover.
At least Beetle and Dargley hadn't been around. He'd never told them how he'd squirreled away a last pouch of gold from their adventures, then squandered it on false hope and fake healing elixirs peddled by the local Sczarni thugs. He should've seen the con coming a long way off, even without eyes.
Now not even hope remained.
Footsteps approached. A single person this time. Had Samphy or one of his lackeys returned?
He groaned as he gathered himself. "If I didn't find payment in a week, what will a few minutes have accomplished?"
A rattle alerted him to a coin tossed into his bowl. His trained ears figured it for silver.
Surprised, he raised his head and tried to fix on his unknown benefactor. The person stood before him, a deeper zone of silence in the quiet street. Waiting for...? Ah, of course. Larem swallowed blood and smiled crookedly.
"Desna will embrace your soul, kind... sir?"
He plucked up the offering to bless it with a kiss.
The pall of death suffused the coin, an unearthly chill that iced his blood. True silver, by the polish of it, and new enough that he easily picked out the skull engraved on either side.
A burial coin. The type folks sometimes placed over a corpse's eyes before it was entombed.
The presence chuckled—a liquid, putrescent sound, accompanied by a wave of graveyard stink.
"Hello, Larem," it whispered. "I've been looking for you."
Coming Next Week: The hauntings of the past in Chapter Two 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