As midnight approached, wide swaths of storm clouds swept off of the Nightsea to cloak the city of Eyeshorn. With rolling fog that filled the streets and alleys, the storm moved through the city like the fingers of a plague. Thunder rumbled in the heavens, and the city cowered at the blindness that the storm brought and the fury of its rumbling preamble. With its shutters closed, its doors locked, and its windows barred, Eyeshorn waited in terror on the brink of the impending tempest
Several miles from the docks, on the eastern edge of the city, Eyeshorn’s graveyard sulked as the storm approached. Its gray gravestones, walkways, and fences moped, steeped in the sorrow of their own colorlessness.
Even the grass looked gray in the cold dark.
The only color to be found in the cemetery came from the leaves that had recently fallen, as the few trees of the graveyard prepared for winter. At night, even these brilliant colors shone a dreary gray-blue, their innumerable shades stolen by the dying of the sun.
The fallen leaves, decked out in the hoary cloaks mother night had dressed them in, whispered to each other as they wandered between the tilting gravestones of the old, lonely cemetery. "Someone’s coming," they said. "Someone’s here."
And they were right.
The cemetery’s intruders moved like smears of black paint across the dark canvas of the night. Dressed from head to toe in midnight black, they offered no sound in evidence of their passing. Despite the fallen debris that covered the autumn-chilled earth, they did not snap so much as a twig.
There were two Fists of them, ten men in all, with each man referred to as a Finger in the ranks of Count Zabax Dilgreshar’s Cult of the Black Heart. The Fingers, his elite, stood second only to the Talons in the ranks of the cult. The keepers of Dilgreshar’s teachings, the Fingers forever dedicated themselves to the preservation and furthering of his order
To their dismay, the count had died, or, he had died as much as one such as himself could die, leaving the cult teetering on the edge of extinction. Killed and dismembered by Ang Saroth years ago, his death had brought an abrupt end to the reign of terror that he had held over Eyeshorn’s vast underground empire for generations. Not one cutthroat, cutpurse, or courtesan living in the city hadn’t known his name, and they had all feared and respected him above all others, including the Wizard-Emperor of Tur-Loghan, Aldfrost Chast.
Only Ang Saroth knew the true extent of Zabax’s power, yet she did not fear him Whether through sheer hubristic stupidity or through pure unfaltering courage, she feared no one.
Her fearlessness eventually led to her confrontation with the count, and she had survived the confrontation unscathed.
He had not.
News of Count Dilgreshar’s defeat spread through the underground like the Mangorial Scratch through a whorehouse. A preposterous tale, after all, no one could believe that Zabax had been slaughtered. Even fewer could believe that he had been slain by his own beloved niece.
"Cut him up, she did," some had said.
"Did more than that," said others. "She took his swords."
"And that’s the itch that begs a scratch. Shai’larun will miss those swords more than she’ll miss her husband, once his men begin to stray."
"True. His power’s hard to get a handle on," many agreed. "Like catching lightflies during the day. It won’t happen. Not without those two swords."
Those swords, Wyrmbiter and Dragoncleaver, had been the count’s for as long as anyone could remember They had become the symbol of his reign, of his power, and of his legendary immortality.
Now, Ang Saroth had them.
Traditionally speaking, Zabax Dilgreshar had not died at all, even after Ang Saroth had dismembered him. If anything, he waited in the depths of his lavish crypt for his followers to liberate him from his captivity.
The Fingers simply needed to retrieve the count’s heart from his stone sarcophagus. After they had his heart, reviving the count would become a simple matter of gathering enough blood to feed it. Young, vibrant blood would work best Innocent blood simply had more life left in it.
"We’ll need children," Shai’larun’s three serpeth brothers had said. "Infants would work best," they hissed.
In such a victim-ripe city, finding the blood would be easy. The first obstacle, actually obtaining the heart, could prove a bit more difficult given the circumstances.
Zabax Dilgreshar’s fortified crypt sat at the center of Eyeshorn’s wind-blown cemetery. An enormous giant of carved granite and strong wyrmtree wood, it had been built to withstand the ages.
Complex stone carvings covered its surface, designed to scare away curious fools and intimidate intelligent men alike. The carvings depicted every one of Dilgreshar’s murderous, vampiric deeds, telling his story in a complex network of glyphs and runes.
If the carvings failed to drive off the inquisitive, no fewer than four guards protected the crypt at all times. These guards, dubbed the Watchers of the Black Heart, had been trained personally by Ang Saroth.
Standing at attention, the Watchers waited in silence in front of the crypt, day and night. Wearing their imposing black armor and aquiline face-plates, they each held vicious-looking barbed spears. They did not move, like ever-watchful gargoyles hunkered down before the crypt.
That night, they weren’t alone.
The Fists darted from gravestone to gravestone like leaves tossed by the wind. Finally, one of the Fingers stopped behind a large gravestone without warning, coming to rest much like a shadow falls in darkness. Silently, he stood in the dark camouflage of the standing stone, drawing deep, methodical breaths. His chest heaved and his heart pounded in his chest, but he did not make an echo of a sound.
Silently, he unsheathed a paper-thin sword. Made of black steel, the blade had been designed to reflect nothing. The symbol of Zabax Dilgreshar - a pair of burning blades - had been etched upon it, representing his two missing swords.
"Can you see me with your eyes, master?" the Finger whispered. "For I can see you with my soul. It is glad to know that you are close."
He slashed his forearm to sharpen his senses. The battle to come had to be silent and quick. He would have to move like the wind and kill like a god, swiftly and without remorse.
The shallow slash in his forearm drew a single drop of blood. The solitary drop fled in the wind and struck the gravestone that the Finger had ducked behind with a silent splatter. Sliding languidly down the stone, inching like a slug, the Finger did not watch its descent.
After all, he couldn’t.
Zabax’s Fingers were blind. Seared useless in a long-standing ritual that pledged them to him, in mind and body, forever, their eyes stood vacant and useless, completely cored-out
Although their eye sockets gaped like the grisly black maws of darkened caves, they could still see, after a fashion. Their unquestioning, unfaltering faith in their master - in Zabax Dilgreshar - allowed them to see more clearly than most mortal men, even with their perfect, unspoiled eyes.
The uninitiated called this strange sight-beyond-sight soul-seeking…
"A storm is coming," the Finger smiled, smelling the rain’s approach in the wind. "We’ll break for the crypt when the thunder calls us to him."
Both Fists had stopped their advance toward the crypt with each Finger tucked tightly behind a gravestone or hidden near one of the cemetery’s many ancient, crumbling sepulchers There they crouched, silent and still like statues, waiting for nature’s call to send them in.
It didn’t take long. After only a handful of moments, lightning called and thunder answered. The Fists closed in to strangle their prey.
The guards would have fought valiantly if they had been given the chance, but the savagely efficient Fingers didn’t even let them ready their spears. Before the thunder echoed off into the distance, three of the guards had been slaughtered. Their bodies, sprawled lifelessly on the dirt or draped across the tombstones, looked like bleeding rag-dolls that had been thrown haphazardly into the night by a malicious child
Still alive, the last Watcher of the Black Heart had been wounded and forced to his knees. His spear had been split in two, and his helm had been bashed off of his head. A paper-thin sword rested softly against his neck, cold and sharp At any moment, it could slice open a new smile across his throat.
"Don’t kill him," one of the Fingers snapped. "We may need him to get inside."
With more than slight hesitation, the sword’s blade relaxed. The Fingers forced the guard up onto his feet.
"Open up the crypt, warrior," one of the Fingers demanded harshly. His filed teeth winked in the dim, oily light of the lanterns that lit the guard post. "Open it now."
"No," the guard replied bravely, clenching his jaw.
The Finger flicked his wrist with a sneer and the sharp sword he carried swept through the air. The sword plunged through the captive Watcher’s armor and bone, cleaving his leg off at the knee.
He fell over in a screaming heap.
"Open up the crypt!"
"I can’t!" the guard cried. He clutched madly at where his knee had used to be with tears streaming down his cheeks.
"Then who can?"
The guard forced himself silent, so one of the Fingers mercilessly kicked him in the chest.
Another of the Fingers had drawn himself up close to the double wyrmtree doors that guarded the crypt, examining them with his sightless eyes and fingertips. "I don’t see a keyhole or a doorknob, but there’s a thirsting ward on these doors," he said with a grim smile. "I feel the wood sucking at my fingers. It wants blood."
"That is Ang Saroth’s doing," another of the Fingers nodded dourly. "She designed the crypt, after all."
"And she is his niece," another Finger nodded. "Who else would put a thirsting ward on the doors of his crypt?"
"It’s uncanny," one of the Fingers giggled, "how alike they really are."
Pulling the guard up from the ground, one of the Fingers barked, "I think you’re lying to us! I think you can open those doors!"
"No!" the one-legged guard begged. "Not me! Please, not me!"
"Why not you? You’ve got what the doors want, right in here," the Finger insisted, poking the guard’s chest.
"The doors just need a little blood to release the mechanism!" another Finger cackled.
"No! No!" the guard cried.
Before the Watcher could say anything else, one of the Fingers slit his throat open. Standing right in front of the double doors of the crypt, the guard’s blood belched out of the gash in his neck and spurted out all over the wood. As the blood fled down the doors in several little rivers, the Fists heard a number of profound clicks. One after another, on the other side of the door, locks sprang open, released by the blood.
The doors to the crypt swung inward.
Without another word, the Fingers swept into the crypt as the dying guard fell to the dirt in a heap of shivering nerves. Moments later, rain began to fall from the heavens to spatter on the guards’ dead bodies, tinkling against their armor and thrumming against their swiftly-cooling flesh in the windy chill of the autumn night.
Somewhere from inside of the crypt came an exalted cry. The Fingers had found the count’s heart.