The Graveblade Society

Gyran’s parents had always told him that he’d get to join them one day at Blademaster Nurien’s annual Graveblade Society party. Now that he was seventeen he would finally get his chance to go. They never actually told him what they did at the parties, besides drinking like they always did. Just about every rich merchant and Highguard in Duridiin spent most of their time drinking, since the people under them did all their work for them. Gyran’s father had always said that was the greatest benefit to being wealthy.

This particular party seemed no different than all the others Gyran had attended. It was the standard affair where elites of the desert city wasted all their time talking about the politics of Vornish trading companies or the most recent marriage among the high families of Fairefen. This, of course, was accompanied by fine bottles of wine from the Nelari wineries west of the Zeldima.

Gyran was dressed in some of his finest clothes with his sandy blonde hair combed back out of his face. This was his boredom uniform usually, and tonight, was no different. His parents had already wandered off to attempt another conversation with someone far wealthier and more powerful than they were. They were always looking to get ahead of their competitors in providing mining equipment to the Vornish in the east.

Gyran watched from a corner, quietly watching the vultures pick at each other. He didn’t hate his parents, or most of the people at the party, but they all were equally opportunistic scavengers picking at the leavings of their betters. They were by-products of the society they were born into.

“Having fun watching the groveling show?” a cheery, though sarcastic, voice asked him, seemingly echoing his thoughts of distaste for the whole ordeal. When Gyran turned to the source of the voice he was greeted by a young woman he guessed to be about his age. Bright green eyes accompanied by a long brown braid that reached nearly to her waist and dark tan skin common to some of the more prestigious families of Duridiin. The formal dress she wore was a dark green complimentary to her eyes; the style was of the same light fabric with lace at the neck and shoulders as was seen among the trade families. The hem of the dress hung just above the ankles. It was not an overly restrictive dress, nor was it overly showy. She didn’t need it to be, Gyran thought, as she was remarkably pretty.

Probably the most interesting thing about my night so far.

He struggled for a moment to find a response as he attempted to veil his surprise at being approached. “That seems to be all my parents are good at.” Flat tone. Was that a weird way to start? Why am I opening up a conversation with a pretty girl I’ve never met by insulting my parents?

“Mine too. I cannot wait till I can go to the trade university in Zeldima and get out of this desert hellhole,” she responded. He studied her for a moment. No hint of a smile. No sarcasm in her tone.

“You’re serious about that aren’t you?” Gyran asked earnestly. The response was far more natural. His interest was piqued.

“Serious as sand. This place is a dry, misery laden trading hub full of snobs trying to marry my mother and trading patriarchs trying to fuck me.” She leaned against the wall next to him and heaved out a sigh. “Sorry. It’s been a long night.”

Profanity! Unexpected from a high trade family. Marry her mother? “Don’t feel bad, parties like this always make me feel slimy. Graveblades normally make that worse,” he gave a reassuring smile and offered his hand. “I’m Gyran Terahur, son of Reyland Terahur.”

She took his hand and shook it firmly, the strength of her grip nearly set him off balance so that he almost fell over. Play it off. Turn toward her to make it look like she didn’t almost yank you off your feet.

“Farhiana Non Hala of the Noussosi family. Most people just call me Farhi.” She gave him a warm smile before releasing her hand. It took him a moment to recall from his half-remembered classes, but Gyran quickly realized that Farhi was the daughter of one of the most powerful families in Duridiin. The Noussosi family controlled most of the transportation and nearly the entire city watch.

“Oh… I heard about your father. I’m sorry,” Gyran said. Gyran’s parents had relentlessly drilled him on the different powerful families that frequented the Graveblade Society functions. Fortunately for him and his usually lacking memory, the death of Anyen Noussosi was a standout. The death of one of the most powerful patriarchs in Duridiin was the talk of the city. The fates of the now widowed Hala Noussosi, as well as her one son and four daughters, was probably the most common table conversation of the last month since Anyen had died.

“Anyen Noussosi was a crusty old bastard who married a woman half his age because his first wife ended up giving him no heirs to his trade empire. Frankly I’m glad he’s gone so I don’t have to worry about him trying to marry me off to one of his pet patriarchs.” Farhi crossed her arms and glowered about the room at the general gathering.

She’s upset and I didn’t say anything stupid about it. That’s a start. “Well if you have no intention of getting married to one of these lunatics, why’d you come to the party? It’s not like your father is around to make you go to these types of things anymore.” Gyran asked.

Farhi chuckled and glanced at Gyran from the corner of her eye before returning her gaze to the room with a measured stare. “Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean he’s gone. His plans are still very much in motion. His brother convinced Hala to let me come here. She never liked the Graveblades.”

She referred to her mother by her first name. Must not be a warm relation there either. “But you plan on leaving in spite of those plans?”

“Essentially,” Farhi said. “Hala managed to secure her right to father’s estate. The money is hers so her decisions are the end of discussion until my uncles can find a way to get the arbiters to repeal her right as matron of the family.” The young girl looked about the party with her arms still crossed, brows furrowed at the partygoers as they buzzed about.

There was a moment of silence between the two of them then. He believed he understood her despite the vast differences in their positions. Her family was incredibly wealthy and they were equally as rooted in bottom feeding as his; the scrounging was just of a different kind. A quartet of musicians with stringed instruments of varying sizes came into the room and settled on the ballroom stage. The music began shortly after their arrival as they started playing a slow tune more suited for a funeral than a party.

“Is this your first time coming to this event? No one seems to actually know a whole lot of anything about Blademaster Nurien beyond the fact that he’s one of the founders of the society.” With the question posed, Gyran turned his full attention to Farhi and leaned his shoulder against the wall casually as he waited for her response.

“Unfortunately,” Fahri said flatly, returning his gaze and assuming a similar mirrored position to his. “As strong as my mother likes to pretend she is, there are some things she can’t refuse. Every time my father tried to drag me here she said no. Now she’s trying to placate my father’s brothers to buy herself time.”

“Any idea why it’s so important to everyone?” Gyran asked.

“None. As I understand it the society plays some role in brokering contracts between the high families. They also deal in weapons and provide soldiers to some of the high bidders.” She shrugged, “frankly I think Hala is right to avoid them. They’re not like the Dulaaren from the Order of the Living Oak. They have a code they live by. The Graveblades are sell swords with their own agenda.”

“More like vultures,” Gyran scoffed. Farhi nodded in agreement with him and they both returned to watching the attendees with disdainful looks, trading remarks at how low one man would bow, or what one some of them would be willing to do for an extra coin.

The party wore on like that for some time. The music stopped and everyone in the room turned to the main entryway instinctively. Farhi and Gyran both followed the gazes to see two of the guards light the large braziers flanking the large stone entryway. The grey stone signified great status for someone so willing to pay the price to have a quarry ship such large quantities of stone across the desert.

The guards stepped aside and the large stone doors ground open. The rush of cool, dry air from the desert night caused the fires in the braziers to flicker momentarily. As the air settled a dark figure wearing a robe-like cloak swept into the room toward the raised stage near the back of the ballroom.

The cowl of the figure’s cloak was overly sized so that the only feature of the mystery figure visible would’ve been the face were it not for the strange mask concealing it. The mask was far larger than seemed practical. It was in the shape of the head of a dragon with a long, pronounced snout and black eyes made from mesh that seemed to serve as the actual eye holes for the wearer. It was like an ancient story had leaped out of long told stories of the fall of dragons.

The gleaming mask was adorned in red scales with curled gold horns that extended from the forehead and swept backward in a lazy curve. The scales glittered so brilliantly in the light that Gyran expected they weren’t metals, but actual gemstones cut in such a way that they appeared to be scales. It was a magnificent piece of art, he thought to himself, one he expected would only ever be displayed carefully in a thick glass case far from clumsy fingers and desperate eyes.

The guest master, who announced every new arrival to the party, cleared his throat and called out so that they all could hear. “Blademaster Nurien of House Nurien, founding member and seneschal of the Graveblade Society, master of a thousand blades and keeper of a thousand secrets.”

Whispers erupted around the room, a soft chorus of gasps and discussions speculating, admiring, and otherwise gauging the mysterious host. The masked man didn’t stop as he came into the room, his reaction to the attention masked by his elaborate costume. He set a brisk pace toward the stage where the quartet was playing.

Servants began to scramble in and out of many side rooms that led to the ballroom. Four of them came out carrying a large, ornately carved podium. The head of the podium was blackened as if it had been scorched, though its surface was still flat and unmarred by splinters. The base of the podium had a carved snake that coiled down to the bottom in an illusory heap. They placed it and scurried away just a few moments before the famed Blademaster reached the stage.

There was a moment of complete silence as the Blademaster stood regarding the crowd of partygoers. The room fell still as everyone waited apprehensively for their host to begin speaking. The silence was broken when other servants began carting in what appeared to be a small furnace, a table nearly six feet in length, and a rack of various types of tools meant for forging.

Some whispers rose as everyone in the room bumped their neighbors to comment on the scene. Some looked eager and others were hesitant. Gyran even caught the eye of his own father for a moment. The look was from the opposite side of the room, but Gyran could already gauge from his glower that it was his standard “Don’t fuck this up for me, boy,” look. He guessed his father recognized that he was standing and conversing with a Noussosi.

“Is this some sort of demonstration? Seems odd, even for this lot.” Farhi’s voice garnered Gyran’s attention away from his father. He’d noticed upon looking back at her that she had scooted closer to him, her head was nearly resting at his shoulder as she whispered into his ear even though she was nearly his height.

Normally the situation would’ve made him uneasy, but the strange assortment of items now meticulously placed on what had been the dance floor distracted his usual nerves he had around girls. He tilted his head down toward her to partially shield his whispers from those close by.

“You know how much the elite of our desert hellhole love to pretend they know what actual work is like,” Gyran whispered. She let out a short laugh and turned her head to peak up at him out of the corner of her eye again. She had a grin and a twinkle of mischief in her gaze, the first time she seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself. When she swiveled her head back to the happenings in the room, a flowery scent wafted from the puff of wind created by her whipping braid.

Gyran grinned before turning his attention back to the center of the room. Maybe this wasn’t the worst thing, coming here, he thought to himself. The servants had begun firing the furnace, the smoke from which seemed to be sucked away as it wafted toward the ceiling.

The conversation rose some as people observed the servants work. They brought out ore and packed it with straw and dirt alongside heaps of black coal into the furnace. Some of the servants assorted the tools from the rack onto the table and tended to the furnace. Some others still continued a steady stream of materials to pack into the furnace. Two men even rolled an anvil out in preparation of whatever demonstration they had.

Blademaster Nurien raised a gloved hand and rendered the partygoers silent, leaving only the sound of the small roaring furnace. It was the first movement he’d made since standing at the head of the podium. He’d been standing there so long while they all watched the preparations that Gyran had nearly forgotten the masked figure was a man and not a statue at the center of the room.

“I am glad that you all could join me this evening,” the Blademaster started. His voice was deep and crackled with every word. “I hope that you all have enjoyed your time tonight.” Voices murmured in agreement around the room. Some among them seemed hesitant but agreed nonetheless, spurned to do so as to not appear rude or unappreciative.

“The demonstration is a reminder of the work we do for this city, and all the cities across the land.” He pointed his glove toward the furnace and nodded the jeweled mask in a movement accentuated by size of the ensemble. “There are things we must do as keepers of the city to maintain order in these wild lands. Thieves and brigands threaten the livelihoods of your families and those in your charge. Outsiders and those without loyalties strike at the heart of our worlds every day.”

He stepped down from the stage and toward the table, expectantly waiting as one of the servants began to pour the now molten metal into a cast of a simple square ingot that they had brought along with the tool rack. The room was seemingly captivated, the work was well organized as the servants tended to various moving parts, heating the furnace and bringing out a bucket full of water for quenching the metal.

Nurien examined the tool rack with his shining visage before taking a particularly large hammer from among the selection. “The tools we use to forge this tentative peace among our disparate peoples are many. The Graveblades are one of many tools in the set.”

One of the servants took the semi-malleable ingot and placed it on the anvil. The angry glow seemed to only heighten the drama of the speech as the Blademaster approached the anvil carrying his hammer in one hand. The light from the mask sparkled and reflected in dizzying patterns on the floor, ceiling and walls. The dramatic lighting and mask was all very showy, Gyran thought, but effective.

“We hammer the imperfections to the best of our ability,” he took the hammer in both hands and slammed it down with a loud ring. The shower of sparks didn’t appear to startle him in the slightest. One blow from the hammer and the ingot had nearly bent in half. Two servants clamped the glowing ingot in place before the dragon headed man continued. “The hammer is not a perfect instrument for these imperfections. It does serve its purpose, though.” His speech was methodical and halting with an accent that Gyran had not heard before.

Nurien brought the hammer up again and struck down at the ingot once, and then twice. Each hit showered more and more sparks in every direction, causing some of the onlookers to skitter back to avoid catching fire from the embers. The three blows had already caused the metal to be pounded to a length comparable to a dagger of moderate size. The same servants who clamped the ingot in place dowsed the metal in the water bucket before immediately returning it to the furnace.

He placed the hammer back on its rack and returned to the large table. “The impurities we cannot tamp out through the hammer sometimes must be cut out. In many cases we pay the cost for these impurities in blood.” Two servants began bringing out a long trough-like metal cart that they wheeled toward the end of the table.

“Bring it in.” Nurien gave a wave of his hand toward the main door. The guards opened the main doors at his gesture. The whole room shifted their gaze from the raucous in the center of the room to the doors. Two large men were dragging a large creature with matted gray fur into the ballroom.

As they neared Gyran’s vantage he realized the creature wasn’t some animal or dog as he’d thought at first, but it was actually a large worven stripped to the waist of clothes. It’s tattered pantlegs barely had any cloth left below his knees. The worven were a race of beast-like peoples from the eastern plains. Gyran had only ever met one in the city before, and only for a few brief moments. As far as he could tell this one was male, judging by the two large spikes jutting out from his shoulders.

“What the hell…” Farhi whispered just loudly enough under her breath so Gyran was able to hear. Someone opposite to their position let out a laugh and tossed a meat bone at the limp figure. A few others, still with their dinner plates on hand did the same so that a small trail of bones highlighted the path the guards dragged the worven.

He couldn’t see much, but this worven looked unkempt like he’d been kept a prisoner for quite a while. His gray fur, if it was even gray, was knotted and greasy as if he’d been unable to bathe for days or even weeks. His face was bloodied and scarred and his hands and feet had been bound together tightly with coarse ropes. The worven’s shoulder spikes rose slightly from his shoulders before curling out and away from his head nearly a foot. One spike appeared to be sawn off at the end, exposing the greyish chiton inside the horn. The shape served as a set of convenient handholds that the guards dragged him by.

They flipped him about so that his chest was facing the ceiling, Nurien stood over his form for a moment looking down at the barely breathing form, his expression hidden by the mask that flickered ominously in the light of the furnace.

“Some impurities can only be cleansed by blood.” Nurien said simply, producing a long, jagged dagger that was curved along one edge. The blade looked equally as foreign as the mask, it was a yellow-white color with jagged spine-like protrusions along the back half of the blade.

Two guards and two of the servants all grabbed a hold of one of the worven’s bound limbs. Nurien first tapped the flat of his wicked looking blade against the dark nose of his captive. A second passed without event, and then both eyes snapped open. His head was facing Gyran and Farhi so that as soon as he regained his consciousness, it was as if his alien gaze was burrowing into the two of them.

“Mother forgive me…” Gyran whispered, aghast at the scene in front of him. The worven’s yellow eyes stared directly at the two of them for a few more moments before flickering around the room. The moment passed before his head jerked up and around to regard the restraints and the dragon mask staring blankly at him. As soon as recognition seemed to set in, the worven let out a primal growl as the hairs that could do so stood on end on his neck.

“Ah so the beast is awake.” Blademaster Nurien seemed to be toying with the captive worven, tapping the flat of his blade against the knuckles of his other hand. The crowd was jeering at the prisoner, still some more in the crowd tossing scraps of food and bones at the base of the table. Gyran and Fahri locked eyes for a moment, shared horror in both their expressions.

“You,” the worven spat out. “I thought you were dead.” The crowd jeered again.

“It speaks!” a man cried from the enclosing crowd

“Kill it!” another voice called

Nurien raised a hand and the voices died down some. “I am harder to kill than your kind give me credit, dog.”

The worven growled again. “Why didn’t you just kill me then? You have to watch old Whitemane suffer through the indignity of your gloating?”

Nurien tapped the tip of his dagger against the chin of the dragon mask. “No, of course not fine Whitemane, you have yet to fulfill your purpose for me. Your people have power the likes of which you probably don’t even know. I’d like to extract it from you.”

“You’re a coward, lizard.” Whitemane growled again. He threw his head back exposing his furred neck. “I’m ready to face my god!”

Nurien tilted his head for a moment as if to regard Whitemane with some modicum of respect. The servants moved the trough into place below the worven’s neck with expressionless faces. The Blademaster brought his dagger up to shoulder height and paused for a moment.

Farhi gasped aloud and Nurien hesitated, shifting his gaze to the source of the noise. Gyran was stunned at what was happening, he could barely turn his head to regard Farhiana before she reached out and grabbed ahold of his hand instinctively.

The touch was like a jolt of lightning shot through his body. His vision flashed for a moment and Gyran could barely feel his own body as he sunk down to one knee, barely maintaining balance at the sudden sharp pain.

What? Oh, Mother preserve me! It was a voice; a female voice was the only thing he could hear besides the ringing. His ears were ringing? It felt as though his right hand was on fire. It burned. All he could see when he opened his eyes was a single ceramic tile directly underneath his palm. His hand burned and he couldn’t see anything but it and the tile. Instinctively, possibly born of his disoriented state, Gyran slammed his palm into its center.

The burning ceased and a sense of acute clarity came over him immediately before his palm struck the floor. The contact cracked the ceramic like a fragile dinner plate and his vision returned to normal just in time to see it as his hand. A massive, wave-like ripple extended from his hand out into the room.

The ground shook violently around him. Both him and Farhi were unaffected in the small radius while the rest of the room had been set off balance. Gyran looked at the table to see that the worven captive was bleeding not from a slash to the throat, but his shoulder.

Most of the tradesmen and bureaucrats had fallen flat on their backs from the shockwave. Nurien stumbled forward against the podium with his mask’s otherwise static expression seemingly conveying confusion as he turned to look at both Gyran and Fahri. The men holding Whitemane in place had stumbled from their posts so that the worven was able to roll off the table to land awkwardly, half propped against the table.

Gyran was feeling extraordinarily tired as he knelt on the ground. Whatever had happened with his hand had left him feeling drained. Farhi, without word or hesitation, ran the fifteen or so feet to the would-be sacrificial table Whitemane was propped against and began helping him untie his bonds.

“GET THEM!” a muffled yell called. It had to be Nurien. No time to take second guesses Gyran though to himself. With some effort he pushed himself up from the ground and ran after Farhi. His thoughts were a mess, were his parents really complicit in sacrifices? Did they know about this all along?

One of the guards that had been holding onto Whitemane staggered to his feet gripping the pommel of his blade, ready to draw on Farhi and the worven. “Farhi, behind you!” Gyran called out. He was running sluggishly, a sickly haze washing over him. Whether it was from the shockwave or the situation he was unsure.

The guard seemed cautious as he approached the daughter of the Noussosi family and the large worven she was assisting. He clearly recognized Farhiana as the daughter of Hala Noussosi. Hurting a member of such a powerful family was a one-way trip to the grave, even for Graveblades. By the time Farhi stood up to face the approaching assailant, Whitemane was already out of his bonds and in a low crouch, ready to pounce on the approaching man.

Another one of the guards got up then, seemingly shaken still from the miniature quake. One of the attendees to the party that had fallen near to where Gyran was had struck his head against the ground in such a way that he’d managed to knock himself out. A fine scimitar was at his side sheathed in a decorated scabbard. Gyran took the opportunity and unbuckled it from the man’s waist belt and reattached it to his own. By the time he was looking back up, Whitemane had pounced on the one guard before he’d drawn his weapon. The other guard was approaching Farhi with one hand on his blade pommel and the other outstretched.

Gyran was stumbling slightly. Just a little further.

“Now Lady Noussosi just-”

“Get away from me you monster!” Farhi held her fists in at her sides in a defiant stance and scowled at the man she saw as party to the evil act that nearly transpired there. When he’d stepped close enough to her he swiped with his open hand and grabbed onto her wrist. He smiled for a moment thinking he had her and jerked back to pull her off balance and restrain her.

She didn’t budge.

The guard, a tanned skin, grizzled, middle-aged man nearly a foot and a half taller than Farhi looked nearly as surprised as Farhi was when she resisted his pull. Some flicker of realization seemed to come over her expression and she grinned at the man with a wild look in her green eyes.

His face first held confusion, and then fear when she stepped her left leg closer to him and savagely kicked her right foot forward toward his right knee. The resounding crack had a sickening resonance to it so it was audible even above the raucous in the room. When her booted foot struck his knee, the leg straightened out and then snapped the wrong way backward as if she’d struck him with a sledge. He screamed in agony and crumpled to the floor writhing in pain.

The room became chaos as the guests continued to rise up from the initial shockwave. Gyran made it to the table with Farhi and drew the scimitar from the sheath. He wasn’t even sure if the blade was actually sharpened, but it was something.

“Care to explain what exactly just happened?” Gyran asked, looking warily at the figures surrounding them. He scanned the crowd for his own parents but they didn’t seem to be anywhere among the hostile faces. He waved the scimitar about in a warding motion as if to keep the stares directed at them away.

“The sacrifice part or the kicking part?” Farhi asked with one raised eyebrow.

“If you have ideas on either that might help me understand what’s going on.”

“I can explain the rat bastard trying to kill me.” The gravelly voice was Whitemane’s, who was slowly backing toward them with a longsword clenched firmly in his grip that he’d looted from the other guard that made a move for them. The mangled body that remained of the worven’s kill was a pool of blood; Whitemane’s muzzle and neck were smeared red, Gyran wasn’t sure how much of the blood was his and how much belonged to the guard.

“Just give us the worven and I can explain everything to you child, it’s simply a misunderstanding,” Nurien’s voice. Gyran looked at him, incredulous as the crazed man in the mask pointed angrily at the bloodstained worven. “That beast is a murderous criminal of the highest order!”

“Don’t listen to his lies kid.” Whitemane growled

“Why should I trust you when you were going to execute this… man.” Gyran gestured the scimitar at Whitemane.

“Because you’re a human! He’s a beast! A dog! You could never trust him like-” Nurien’s outburst was cutoff mid-sentence when a loud BOOM shook the hall. A cloud of dust and rubble shot out from the stone wall behind the stage. Everyone with the reflexes and common sense to do so dropped to the floor again from where they had just stood up. A stone the size of Gyran’s head tumbled end over end just narrowly missing him as he fell to the floor.

The room hung silent for a moment after the blast. Groans echoed about the hall and Gyran scrambled on his hands and knees toward the last spot he’d seen Farhi, still clutching his stolen sword in his grip. The dust cloud that had filled the room began to settle so that when he found her, he was surprised to see her supporting Whitemane’s weight. His right leg had a piece of wood jutting from it nearly a foot in length. The wound oozed a steady crimson.

Shit. He’s going to need a healer’s attention. Fast. The female voice again sounded off as clear as a whisper in his ear. It was like whoever was speaking was doing so mere inches from his ear. The voice rang clearer than any of the other Chaos.

Was that Fahri? Gyran thought to himself as he approached. Fahri jerked her head up and gave him a confused look for a second before readjusting her stance to accommodate for Whitemane’s weight.

“Betrayer of sisters and brothers,” a female voice stated. This one was tangible in the room. The voice was a rich, alto tone that seemed to suppress and drown out all other commotion in the room. “The time has come to pay for your sins.”

Gyran squinted nervously at the hole in the wall twenty or so feet from where he, Whitemane, and Farhi were standing. The silhouette he could see through the haze of dust mixed with night fog was imposing. Ominous even. The woman standing there was incredibly tall, he figured she must’ve been at least six feet in height. A nearby still-burning brazier shed enough light in so that the glimmer reflected off the newcomer’s shining breastplate and illuminated her features. A long unadorned skirt cascaded from underneath the breastplate nearly to the floor.

Patrons of the party-turned-sacrifice had begun to stir, groaning all the while as they rose. Gyran noted that he didn’t see Nurien’s jeweled head rise from the ground. The armored woman strode into the room with an unmistakable grace. She appeared to be human, as her ears and stature indicated, although her hairstyle and exaggerated angular facial features made her appear as though she was an otherworldly apparition in the low light. The sides of her head were shaved down to the skin and the top of her head had a single, tightly bound braid that ran from the front of her head to just above her shoulder blades. Although she was walking directly into a seemingly hostile room with a few dozen guards and loyal servants, she maintained a calm demeanor. In contrast to her measured manner as she walked, she held the haft of a strange looking two-handed weapon the likes of which Gyran had never seen before.

End to end the oddity must’ve been nearly as tall as its handler. The shape of the pale white haft was irregular so that she appeared to be holding onto it a fourth of the way from the bottom with her left hand. Her right hand grasped onto a strange handhold that looked similar to a ladder rung fixed three-fourths of the way from the bottom of the hilt. At its head, the curved blade sloped outward long-ways like a farmer’s scythe, save for the fact that it was far larger. The blade started at approximately half a foot in width before tapering to a fine point nearly a foot-and-a-half in length. The color of the blade was unsettling on its own. The pale gray lacked the luster of any polished metal and seemed to be entirely uniform in its appearance as if it had been hewn from stone.

“10,000 durins to whoever kills that woman!” Nurien called out frantically. Gyran caught site of his mask before anything else as he was running toward one of the side doors, more than likely a secret escape or hideout he’d readied for such an occasion. He managed to get through the door before the mysterious scythe wielding warrior was confronted by two of the guards that had recovered from the second blast.

The blur of movement was barely susceptible as the guards approached the woman cautiously. In the blink of an eye, the weapon had moved from its angled position pointed away from the wielder’s waste to a horizontal position parallel to the ground. She held the pose for a moment with only her left hand pointing the tip of the weapon like a strange lopsided tree.

The two men both slumped to the ground, blood gushing from their throats. Both of them dropped their weapons and tried to grip at their slashed necks to no avail. The woman stepped gingerly over the expanding pool of blood as if trying to avoid getting her boots or skirt sullied. She reverted to her previous grip on her weapon and assumed a relaxed stance as more of the patrons rose to their feet. Many of them were drawing daggers from hidden places on their person or decorative swords from their jeweled scabbards.

Nurien had said the exact words to spurn his guests to action. He’d offered a kingly sum of coins to the one who killed the unwelcome intruder. The guards and every guest with a weapon or a will scrambled to mob the newcomer. The amount of durins he’d offered was enough to purchase or claim land in the mountains and pay for the material, building, and labor costs for an entire estate fit for a trade baron.

Gyran, Farhi, and Whitemane began to walk toward the exit of the entertainment hall. Gyran helped Fahri support the worven’s weight since he was a few feet taller and far bulkier than she was. The partygoers that weren’t already running out of the room and away from the threatening warrior were rushing past the strange trio and toward the scythe wielding maniac.

A few grunts and a yelp caught Gyran’s attention for a brief moment so that he looked away from the exit and back toward the unfolding scene. There was a small mass of people surrounding the woman. She was a spinning tornado of motion as some of the braver souls amongst them attempted to close the gap and tackle her. The simple black skirt whipped about her legs as she spun about. The scythe and the woman whirled continuously in a series of spinning or slashing motions.

Just before Gyran returned his attention forward the dervish of death stopped her body from spinning as she maintained a steady stance twirling her weapon above her head to ward off any approaching attackers. She met his gaze for a brief moment, her steely gray eyes intense and knowing. For a moment he thought that’d she’d leap after him, but then she turned away to deflect an oncoming strike. The attacker was a middle-aged trader not unlike Gyran’s father. Just as soon as he attempted to slash at the woman’s legs she skipped back a half step out of the man’s reach before cleaving her assailant’s arm clean off with a single spin of the scythe blade.

No, she wasn’t here for them, Gyran knew that much. Fahri was almost entirely supporting Whitemane’s weight by that point. Gyran ducked out from under his arm and rushed to open the large entryway doors. Fortunately for the both of them someone had already done the work of prying the stone doors open enough to squeeze through. He imagined somewhere there was a hidden mechanism that could be used to assist with the heavy weight but he didn’t have much time to look.

The space was small enough for Farhi and Gyran as they were far slimmer than the imposing worven. He couldn’t leave the poor worven behind, though. He knew he had to be better than his parents. With the motivating thought pushing him to it, he ran to the small gap in the door to pull it open. The full grip he got was barely enough to help pull the door an inch open, let alone the additional foot that Whitemane needed to get through.

“You children should go. I can die here happy knowing that Nurien can’t get what he wanted from me,” Whitemane said. He was speaking between shallow huffs of breath. “I’m… So tired.”

Farhi helped him kneel to the ground before running to help Gyran widen the door gap. She gripped below his handholds and began to pull. By her efforts the door began to swing open almost immediately. Her strength was far beyond her small frame, as was evident not only by the door but the power required for her to break that guard’s leg clean in half.

They widened the door enough so that Whitemane had enough space to fit through. One of the men who appeared to be in the same all-white servant garb as the forge assistants saw them making the move to leave. He looked to be younger than some of the others, maybe a couple years older than Gyran. His hair was light brown and shaved down so far that it was barely perceptible against his tanned skin.

Fahri ran back to Whitemane’s side to assist him back to his feet. The worven’s visage was particularly bestial, being covered in blood with his matted hair and his eyes half shut. His mouth was partially agape, drawing in shallow breaths as he swayed side to side attempting to keep himself upright.

“You should leave me,” he groaned, one lazy half-open eye regarding the two children who were attempting to help him.

“You’re not going to die on me dog-man,” Farhi said with a half-hearted chuckle. She knelt down and draped his arm over her shoulder before standing as straight as she could, driving the somewhat surprised Whitemane to his feet.

“Strong girl,” Whitemane coughed out. He regarded Gyran with a curious look as his eyes seemed distant from the Nurien estate.

He’s losing a lot of blood, Gyran thought. He needed help soon and the servant that had noticed their impending escape had started to advance toward them with a crazed look and a small dining knife he seemed to produce from nowhere as Gyran was looking away.

“I know, we need to get him to my mother. She’s far from here, across the city.” Farhi responded aloud as she half-guided, half-dragged the delirious creature out through the door.

Gyran didn’t have the time to consider the fact that Farhi had just responded to his internal thought, as the crazed servant had closed enough distance between them so that Gyran had to slash out with his stolen sword to ward him off. He dodged out of the way before trying to lunge forward again, Gyran responded with a somewhat slow parry that barely missed the arm of his opponent.

He didn’t want to turn away from the aggressor. Whatever Nurien taught to his followers, they were loyal. Some distance from his plodding fight he could see the warrior woman spinning about a crowd of people attacking her; her scythe whipped through the air with an audible whistle as she struck out again and again at her foes.

For the brief moment that he looked back at the gruesome spectacle, Gyran’s opponent saw his attention being split. He lunged forward again with a sideways slash at Gyran’s ribs. Gyran responded in turn by jerking his free arm instinctively in a defensive posture. The impromptu block angled just so that the knife struck Gyran’s elbow instead of his ribs, a harsh blow that jarred his arm.

The pain followed the jolt of the deflected attack almost immediately. Whatever the servant had struck felt like a hot iron pressing to his arm. Gyran stabbed haphazardly at the man who backed away from the slow blow. Even as he continued to back toward the exit, he feared that he might not make it away from the man. The young merchant’s son had not spent much time learning to fight, and the experience he had gained from his mother’s encouragement of him taking fencing classes was not particularly applicable to wielding a fully weighted sword against an older, stronger, and more unstable opponent.

The extraordinary stroke of luck was welcome, then, when the disembodied head of an unfortunate fellow came tumbling through the air trailing a stream of blood and gore behind it. The path of the head originated from the fight across the room with the scythe warrior and arced over just enough so that the head struck the servant in the back of the skull before bouncing to the ground with a gruesome smack.

Gyran seized the opportunity and stabbed again at his newly dazed adversary. The force of the unorthodox projectile had knocked the man forward and off balance enough that the sword caught him directly in his throat. The gurgle that followed was nearly as stomach churning as the bodyless head laying on the ground a few feet from him. Gyran jerked the sword back immediately, regretting the strike but realizing there was nothing he could do.

In a final defiant effort as the servant clutched his pierced throat with his free hand, he threw the makeshift weapon at Gyran as hard as he could, giving a furrowed and angry glare as if he hated nothing else more than he hated him. Gyran quickly sidestepped behind the door just as the blade came point first toward him so that it struck the stonework instead of him.

Gyran was haunted by the sound that he made, a muffled gargle. He stood staring at the door for a moment with the sword gripped firmly in his hand. The shock of the whole thing had set in and the pain he felt in his arm had numbed somewhat to a painful throb. The night sky was lit by the two moons beaming down upon the scene. Blood seeped underneath the door.

“Gyran, come on!” Farhi’s voice brought some sense of purpose back to him. The worven was innocent and needed their help.

He found her helping Whitemane toward the gate to the estate. The section of the city they were in was primarily wealthy traders, arbiters and merchants who built their homes on small hills to get a view of the surrounding streets as well as giving each a vantage on their neighbor. The Nurien estate was the highest in that district of Duridiin so that it gave a strange perspective of the surroundings. It was a marvelous sight of the city by any normal standard, but not nearly as grand of a vantage point as the Dulaaren tower at the heart of it all.

The fog mixed with the two shaded light from Adnir and Dunir, the first and second moons. Adnir shone a pale, bright white whilst Dunir was a blood red that trailed behind Adnir’s path some way with a much dimmer glow. The ominous mixture of fog and red-white light seemed to match Gyran’s thoughts. He helped support Whitemane as best as he could with his own injury while they headed toward the open gate to the estate.

“No guards,” Farhi said, huffing as she continued to bear most of Whitemane’s weight. The worven was becoming increasingly unresponsive as he continued to lose blood and consciousness.

“They must’ve run in when they heard the commotion,” Gyran reasoned. The explosion that opened the way for the armor-clad scythe-wielding soldier was incredibly loud, not to mention whatever Gyran had done to make a shockwave in the room. He had so many questions. Who was that woman? Why were they sacrificing this worven? How did Farhi break that man’s leg like it was a brittle broom handle?

“Well I’m not really sure how I broke his leg,” Farhi responded again. “As far as the worven goes, if there’s anything I know about rich, sick bastards it’s that whenever they gather like that it’s never good.”

Gyran was taken aback for a moment as he looked at Farhi from the corner of his eye. She was mostly obscured underneath Whitemane’s bulk, but she clearly had thought that he’d made the comment out loud. She could hear my thoughts!

The revelation rocked him as they continued forging through the garden path toward their exit. “Wait, what?” Farhi stopped for a brief moment and lowered Whitemane to the ground so that he was laying on his back. She looked at Gyran confused before grabbing his sword without a word, and then used it to make an incision in the fabric of her dress from her knee all the way to the bottom.

You can hear what I’m thinking. Gyran thought, seemingly to himself. He picked the words deliberately as if he was planning to speak them out loud. Farhi paused her task for a moment to squint at Gyran in the moonlight, as if trying to determine if it was some trick where she couldn’t see his lips moving.

“I guess it’s not the weirdest thing about this evening,” she said flatly. She gripped the cut fabric at the bottom of her dress and ripped it so that the entire bottom section up to her knees came off in one long green strip. The lack of formal dress was not uncommon among women in Duridiin as the city was in the desert, but her casual regard of her modesty made Gyran flush somewhat, even though she was wearing flat-heeled boots that came up to her knees.

Can he hear my thoughts? The voice was unmistakably Farhi’s, although the tone seemed different and the pitch wasn’t quite what Gyran heard when she spoke aloud. She began to bind the makeshift bandage above the place where the large piece of shrapnel had struck his leg.

I can, Gyran thought in response. Farhi paused for a moment, seemingly unsettled by the revelation in that she could just as clearly hear Gyran’s thoughts as she could hear his.

“It might be useful. I don’t know who we can trust in the city.” Farhi relaxed somewhat as she began to tie the bandage in place. She turned her gaze toward Gyran with a determined look in her eyes.

“You trust me though?” Gyran said, gesturing toward himself with the point of the scimitar he’d taken.

“For better or worse we’re connected and we can hear what the other is thinking. You didn’t give into Nurien so you’re already better than anyone else in that group,” she said. She tied off the bandage and pointed toward the building they had just left to emphasize her point.

“That’s fair,” Gyran said with a shrug. He took off his overcoat, a terrible scratchy thing he despised anyway, and cut out the back of the jacket. He made another cut in the fabric so that he was left with two longer strips of cloth. After sheathing the scimitar, he presented the pieces of cloth to Farhi.

She looked at his elbow critically for a moment, “What’d you do?” she asked.

“That servant tried to attack me as we were leaving.” Gyran said, shrugging with his one good shoulder.

“What happened to him? Did he follow us?” she asked with a worried look behind them.

“Scimitar to his throat,” Gyran said. The thought still haunted him somewhat. The sound and the sight both of the man not much older than him crumpling in a pool of his own blood was unsettling.

Farhi nodded without saying anything, took the cloth strips and tied a similar bandage around his injured elbow. The pain was a dull throb mostly, but the bleeding would only serve to make him weaker.

“What now, then?” he asked whilst tying a simple knot to secure his bandage.

“We should get out of this district and go to my mother,” Farhi began to explain as she assisted Gyran in dragging Whitemane to his feet again. “Her guards will protect us, none of them are from the employ of the Graveblades.”

Gyran nodded in response. His parents had either left him or been killed in the war path of the warrior going for Nurien. His options were limited and the idea of just returning to his home alone to await whatever fate befell him there was his least favorite of the few options he did have. I guess this is our lot then.

Not exactly how I thought the night would go. Farhi was responding deliberately then. They made a mental agreement that staying as quiet as they could until they reached the Noussosi estate would be for the best. When they helped Whitemane down the winding path to the street it was already well into the night.

This part of Duridiin is quiet at night. We should expect an uneventful walk until we get to the market district, Farhi noted looking at Gyran as best as she could past Whitemane’s obscuring form.

What do we do if someone sees us? Gyran responded in kind.

Hope they’re not a Graveblade.

Great plan.

I don’t hear you coming up with a better one, Terahur.

Gyran pondered for a moment. He could feel Farhi’s tension through their newfound link. Whatever had caused them to be able to speak to each other in some capacity allowed him to feel some of her emotions. It was an unsettling thought, but it was far from the most unsettling experience of the night so far.

They plodded through the streets silently for some time after that. Gyran glanced up at the sky from time to time. The city and the two moons dulled out much of the night sky so that stars were far less prominent. The night fog seemed to gather in loosely defined pools around dips in the road and on the corners of buildings and walls. The mood of the night seemed reflective of the experience to the point that it felt to Gyran that some higher force was at play.

Is this all some cruel joke? Gyran thought, more to himself than to his newly acquired partner-in-thought.

Was that to me? Farhi asked as she readjusted one of Whitemane’s limp arms.

No… Sorry. “It’s more a general lament. This whole thing seems like a cruel joke. Seems as though I’ve been doomed to fail and embarrass my family over and over again.” The words slipped out aloud, quietly but in his voice nonetheless.

Farhi stopped, letting Whitemane rest against an oil lamp pole for a moment. The worven seemed to have gained some modicum of his mental acuity, but he was still very weak and visibly delirious. “Are you talking to The Mother?”

“I’m not sure God has anything to do with this Farhi,” Gyran said, placing his face in his hand. “My whole life they were preparing me to become a merchant for the family. What do I have left if I can’t even trust my family?”

“Well, they were cultists attending the party of a maniac murderer who was going to sacrifice this worven for… Something.” Farhi said with one raised eyebrow and a half grin on her face.

Gyran furrowed his eyebrows in response, “Were you trying to make light of the situation or do you just do that when you don’t know what else to say?”

Farhi shrugged again, a gesture that Gyran was becoming increasingly familiar with coming from her. “This isn’t exactly something I’ve had experience with in the past, you understand.”

Gyran was about to respond but the words seemed to wither in his mouth before he even uttered him. He looked at Farhi, grinning uneasily at him with her bright green eyes and tattered dress, then Whitemane, who managed to lift his head enough to regard his two rescuers in the moonlight, and then Gyran looked at the sky again, near where he knew the dulaaren tower would be if it were visible during the night.

Gyran started to laugh softly then. The sound was somewhat hollow. He was exhausted and expected that the course he thought he had been set on for his life had drastically changed in a single night. Farhi chuckled nervously, as Gyran could tell from the feelings he could read from their bond. She was uneasy and just as worried as he was no doubt.

Their laughter subsided after the brief moment of unease. “You can trust me, at least.” Farhi said earnestly. He didn’t need to look at her to know she was being honest, he had the luxury and assurance of being able to feel her honesty. Regardless of that fact, he still looked into her eyes and found honesty. It was coupled with fear like his own, but honesty nonetheless.

“I’m not sure we have a choice in the matter,” Gyran said with a more genuine smile. “but we’ve been brought here for a reason.”

“Lady Noussosi!” Both Gyran and Farhi jumped at the sudden intrusion to the conversation. Gyran quickly drew his stolen scimitar and pointed it in the direction of the noise. A noise that originated away from the Nurien estate.

Three men in leather brigandines with black and blue uniforms underneath carrying an assortment of weapons came running into view. At first Gyran thought they were some of Nurien’s men coming to finish the job until he realized that Farhi visibly relaxed once she saw them more clearly.

“Pyn? Is that you?” Farhi said

The men huffed in deep breaths, seemingly winded by running full speed with their armor on and weapons drawn. “Matron Noussosi sent us as soon as we heard the explosion across the city. We were coming to check if you were ok!”

“Hey!” one of the other guards yelled and pointed his sword at Gyran. The main guard speaking to Farhi turned his attention to Gyran and tightened his grip on the wicked looking axe he was carrying, the half blade of the weapon shone with an unusual sheen.

“Stand down!” Farhi commanded. The voice she used was far more assertive than what he had expected, even from her, a born and bred wealthy woman. “This man is under the Noussosi family protection. You will treat him as you treat me.”

The guards relaxed somewhat before turning their attention to the defeated looking Whitemane who was still looking at the scene with a glazed-over look in his eyes. “Him too.” Farhi said offhandedly, gesturing toward the tired worven. The men didn’t question the commanding tone in her voice. The shift was subtle, but Gyran noticed immediately how her entire demeanor shifted in dealing with the those under her, a signature trait of the elite in Duridiin. The woman in front of him was far different from Farhi the aspiring, sarcastic tradeswoman. This was Farhiana of House Noussosi.

At her behest, one of the larger guards went and took one of Whitemane’s arms over his shoulder so that he could keep up with them as they headed back down the street. The head guard, Pyn, gave Gyran a critical look but said nothing and began to lead the way down the street while cautiously looking about with his weapon still drawn.

We can trust these men at least, they’re loyal to my mother. She got rid of all of the guards that my father had employed. Farhi’s thought drifted to him in the same calm tone that he was more accustomed to hearing from her.

That seems like a great way to make fast enemies of armed men.

Best to keep those enemies outside of your walls than guarding the door to your bedroom I would think.

A fair point. Do you always act so differently around those in your family’s employ? The inability to hide his inner monologue from her was quickly becoming less strange and more intrusive. Normally the nature of politics was as much about what you chose not to say as what you chose to say, so his father had told him. Now the constant presence of her consciousness pressed against his like a hazy cloud in the corner of his thoughts. Their relationship would be marked by a candid honesty he was not comfortable with or used to.

Act tough or get eaten alive was probably the only useful thing my father taught me. While Gyran considered the words, he felt some undirected resentment color his feelings. The feeling emanated not from her words, but the connection that washed her feelings over his thoughts.

“Lady Noussosi,” the third guard walking beside Farhi said. “what happened at the estate?” Pyn shot a glare at the man who shrugged back knowing that all three of them were thinking the same thing.

“We saw the true nature of the Graveblades. Beyond that… I don’t know where to begin.” The words weighed heavy on the tone of the band so that they continued on in silence, forgoing any further discussion. The walk wore on for some time before the bustling sounds of the always-busy market began to fill the night air.

“Should we just… Walk right through Lady Noussosi?” Pyn asked, hesitant to continue forward with their ragtag group.

“Find us a carriage and have it come here to pick it up,” Farhi said. “Last thing we need is to cause a scene and get recognized.”

“What she’s saying is that the Graveblades have already tried to murder us enough times tonight and our feet hurt.” Gyran inspected the guard’s reactions with a blank expression.

“Elegant, Terahur. Find the cart and have Dox and Kored stay with us. We can ride inside and we’ll catch you up on everything,” Farhi said again, eying Gyran with an annoyed expression.

“Yes, my lady.” Pyn bowed and sheathed his weapon before running toward the sounds of the market. The rest of them ducked into an alleyway and out of site to wait for Pyn’s return, the distant shuffling leaving them constantly unsure of whether someone would pass by or ambush them there and then.

Gyran drew the scimitar yet again, stolen from a man he did not know. He looked up as if he was searching for some answer hidden in the fog or behind the moons.

Why me?

It’s ‘Why us’, now. Farhi’s voice floated to him like a wisp of barely perceptible thought at the edge of his senses.

Why us indeed.