"Eeehh~? That's so lame, Daddy!" Olivia protested, having intently listened to her father's story.
"What's lame about it?" Willis asked, tossing a grape at his daughter, who caught it with her nimble tongue from mid-air. She'd been getting more and more skilled with it, he noted proudly. Not with the same skillset as her mother, of course, but...
"You were a bitch, Daddy!" she said with a firm tone, pointing an accusatory finger at him as he sometimes did when he caught her stealing cookies from Giselle.
"I guess I was" he agreed with a shrug.
"Just like Carlos"
Olivia pondered for a moment, letting her tail toss from one side to the next, her lips pursed and brow furrowed, the look of intense concentration.
"So does that mean Mommy and the aunties DID pee on you?" she asked.
"Well maybe not JUST like Carlos" Willis admitted. There was a limit to the humiliations he had suffered.
"That's still lame! Totally lame!"
"We all have things in our pasts we're not proud of, dear. Like you for example" he said, pointing at her accusingly with his toe.
"You used to be scared of our Oomukade maids"
"I did not!"
"Did too. You used to say 'Mama, Papa! The cweepy cwawwiews will eat me!'"
"I did not!"
"I said no and I mean no, and I'm a Dragon so what I say goes!" Olivia crossed her arms and stuck her chin in the air.
"Can't argue with that" Willis said, grinning impishly. "Unless of course I use me super-special Dragonslaying technique again..."
Olivia went rigid.
"You wouldn't dare!"
And with that, he leaped at his daughter, prepared to tickle her into submission again. Before he could though, they were interrupted by the return of Anisette.
"I beg your pardon Master, but there's trouble..."
Trouble? At this time of day? Whatever time it was, it was unwanted.
"What kind of trouble?"
"Well you see, sir, the umm, the engineering department miscalculated something or, I dunno, but there's a big hole in the wall of the tower now, and Lady Elisabeth is upset because she needed to keep something inside and now that something is outside and she's ever so upset and there's lightning and fire and green lights and I don't want to go there because she'll yell at me!"
The centipede spoke very rapidly, and Willis sighed.
"This is something I'm going to need to get dressed for, isn't it?" he asked as a rhetorical question. Usually he'd prefer to stay in nothing but his robes.
"I'll prepare something suitable sir" said Anisette, and scuttled off.
"Get something for the young lady as well!" Willis shouted after her.
"I'm coming too?"
"Wouldn't want to leave you all alone with a big cweepy cwawwie" he replied.
"Hmph. I'm not scared of anything anymore! I'm a Flemmenwurmer!"
"No you're not"
And so they went on until they got dressed.
Father and daughter wore clothing befitting their station. For Willis, this meant baggy pants he'd gotten from Rhea as a souvenir from the Desert Region, and a wide-sleeved tunic made of blue-dyed silk, a red sash tied loosely on his waist. Olivia was wearing a green dress with golden embroidery. He walked with old, comfy sandals, she walked barefooted.
The two followed the nervous maid along the maze of corridors leading from the Hoard to where they were going. Looking around at all the pillars and walls and windows and lights, Willis found himself remembering how this place had been when he first set foot in it. A damp cave it had been, with just the few Oomukade and Werebats living in it, hiding from the people who had driven them away from their old homes. The tunnel with the stairway and lifts leading down to the valley had then been a dangerous place, with a steep plunge into the darkness. The river that ran from the mountains and all the way down into the lake at the middle of the valley had been a little smaller then, too. It had taken hours and hours to get all the way down back then, trying to keep out of the cold water and keeping a stable footing on the damp, slippery rock. Now it was less than ten minutes by the lift, and maybe half an hour by the stairs. Not to forget how many people were living here now.
"G'day, Will, Ollie" said Carlos, dresses, as usual, in nothing but a skirt and a collar.
"Hmm" Willis mumbled, not breaking his stride. Carlos locked step with them.
"Uncle Carlos, do you know what happened? Anisette is being a hypothermic woman" Olivia said confidently.
"Hysterical woman, Ollie, hysterical. Hypothermic means you need to cuddle a Yeti or you die" Willis corrected her.
"To answer your question, well, they were trying to get into this vein of copper, and Misha wanted to try out the new mix of gunpowder..."
Willis groaned. He'd have to give her a proper spanking for that one.
"...and so the quakes caused a little complications with some rickety shelf or something. Apparently Liz was keeping something really volatile in glass jars on a shelf that wasn't properly put together"
"So the explosion didn't actually break a hole into the tower?"
"Oh heavens no, the stuff got out through the window frames"
A silver lining, perhaps.
"So how dangerous is it?"
"Dangerous? Oh, it's not dangerous. It smells a little funny, but from what I understand the fumes don't have any adverse effects on living, uhh, what's the word she used... tissues? Yeah!"
"Does that mean Auntie Liz's butt is in danger?" Olivia asked in all seriousness. How did she even make that leap?
"What?" Willis asked his daughter.
"Well if it isn't dangerous to living tushies, then doesn't that mean it's dangerous to dead ones?"
Willis shook his head. His heart didn't need this.
Leaving the blasting powder aside, Willis and his entourage stepped outside, to the brightness of daylight and the brisk, cold winds of the mountain range. True to his Nordic heritage, Carlos didn't shiver. Willis, true to his burning heart, didn't either. Olivia, being still young, didn't have the fully fledged inner flames of a Dragon yet, but she was still feeling plenty warm. The only one who didn't enter the outside without a problem was Anisette, who had grown very attached to the comforts and luxuries inside the Lair, not to forget the fact that she was a nocturnal predator by nature. And that she was scared of how angry the Lich was.
Long ago Rhea had brought a Lich here for a variety of reasons, and of course she lived in a tower, mages of all kinds love towers. This particular tower only had five storeys, but it was still the highest peak in the mountains, and offered up a good view down to their valley, as well as down to the hunting grounds, where Rhea and her friends had gone to raid, pillage and plunder.
The much spoken of fumes had dissipated already, it seemed, as the group moved along the walkway leading to the second storey of the tower, the lobby. The first level was used as a basement of some kind, with an additional sub-basement within the foundations, so maybe it was a six-storey building after all? No, the lowest level was beneath ground level. It was this lowest level that had been affected by the miners.
"I see no lightning or green lights" Willis pointed out, casting a glance on Anisette, who was now scuttling along while holding Carlos' hand.
"I beg your pardon Master, but it was not hyperbole. Lady Elisabeth must've calmed down"
The door was open. Of course it was. Why would a Lich lock her door?
"Mind if I don't... sir?"
Willis let out a grunt.
"Away with you then. You too Carlos, I've no idea what you're even doing here!"
Carlos picked up the Oomukade in his arms as Rhea would sometimes pick Willis.
"I can tell when we're not wanted!" he said with a grin and strode off.
"You know, I can walk on my own..."
"Hah! I'll not risk you escaping my affections!"
Willis and Olivia entered the tower. The little Dragonette began to immediately sniff at the air.
"Cinnamon buns!" she exclaimed excitedly.
The scent was certainly there, but...
"No way" he mumbled to himself.
"Liz? You in here or what?" he shouted.
"Upstairs. Fourth floor" came the voice from all around them. Magic and stuff.
"Aunt Liz? Are you making cinnamon buns?"
"NO" the reply was firm and loud, but not a shout. Liz did not shout.
Father and daughter climbed the spiral staircase at the centre of the tower up to the fourth floor, and found themselves faced with a number of doors. Each floor had rooms and corridors to the point of being mazes, and the magic that made the volume of the tower a third larger on the inside then it should have been didn't help with that. Or it did help with that, since that was intentional.
A pale blue light appeared in a line on the floor to guide them to the right place, which was a door marked with a brass plate, adorned with the words "Pouting Chamber". This bode ill.
The duo entered and the light they had been following flowed back into its source, the orb of blue light fluttering in the ceiling of the chamber.
The chamber was almost entirely round, having been built so that it only had a single corner, and it was in this corner they saw the Lich, seated on a big, soft pillow, hugging her knees and staring intently into nothingness. Contrary to the intimidating aesthetics of the tower's exterior, this room was painted with bright colours, depicting a half-clouded blue sky, green fields and meadows, and bunnies and ponies and other girlish things.
Willis watched patiently as his daughter walked up to the pouting Lich, sat on the floor right in front of her and took a deep breath.
"Tell me truth Auntie Liz. Are you mad because you tried to cook cinnamon buns and they all burned up?"
There was no humour in this statement, she asked it with full seriousness. And the Lich replied with the same tone.
"No. I don't like cinnamon buns"
"Is this like sour snakes?"
"That's sour grapes, dear" Willis corrected her.
"Grapesnakes are sour and salty, that's what I meant Daddy"
The Lich got up and put her frail looking hands on the Dragon's shoulders.
"There are no buns here" she said as would the Grim Reaper telling someone their time had come.
"And you're not just purple with envy when you say that?"
"Then gimme a parlais!"
"Fine, follow the light"
The Lich flicked her wrist and the light sent out another line, which Olivia happily followed.
With the Dragonette distracted, the adults were ready to talk. Liz the Lich had the soft and supple body of a dead fourteen-year-old, and the lifeless eyes of one who had spent time on Charon's ferry and come back to tell the tale. Willis had spent his share of time on that ferry, of course, but Liz had been the one to get him out, and this had only been possible thanks to her experience on the matter.
"How's the heart, Willis?" she asked, her emotionless droning now replaced with a perfectly normal voice.
"Fine, just fine" he said, avoiding the subject. He didn't come here for a check-up.
"Fine, just fine?"
"Lies still don't come to you naturally" she said, gesturing with her hand and opening his shirt, revealing his bare chest, and the warm glow beneath his flesh. His wound only glowed under three circumstances: when there was trouble with his heart and the Lich's magic was needed, when he was using magic himself - a rare occurrence, considering his lack of ability - and of course when the Lich was working her magic. She was merely directing the flow of her mana into him to highlight the magic within him, and as he watched, the warm, fiery glow spread in his veins.
"You need to spend less time with Olivia" she said sternly. "Too much of her and you'll crack something. Even I can barely stand the urge to hug her and pat her head and stuff"
"I know" Willis admitted. Just today alone had done a number on him already. He was very conscious of the flaws with his heart.
"You should just let me put in the artificial one..." she began for the umpteenth time, and for the umpteenth time Willis rejected the offer.
"This is the only heart I want. Without it I might as well be dead"
"But that's utterly irrational!"
"I'm not here to discuss the fickle nature of the heart with you, Liz. I'm here to talk about the accident"
The Lich cast her gaze down.
"You got quite mad, or so I'm told"
"It's just that..."
"Just what? What was that stuff anyway? They told me it wasn't dangerous, and it smelled like cinnamon. Wait... WERE you trying to cook?"
"Will, please don't be condescending. My cooking skills are flawless"
"You mean your Familiar's cooking skills are flawless"
"She is an extension of me"
"As you wish. Now stop dodging the question"
"It was nothing, really. I had been diluting some substances from the Deserts, and was hoping to come up with a way to synthesize some of the effects they had. The gaseous forms were so diluted they could hardly do anything to you when inhaled, though Carlos and Anisette may have been sensitive to the aphrodisiac effects..."
"Are you kidding me?"
"Kind of, yes. I know they wouldn't need any help with that. But seriously speaking, the stuff really, really wasn't dangerous"
"So why the anger? Hours of work?"
"Months of work. And the money... oh, Willis, that stuff was worth more than all the gold and jewels Rhea's ever laid her claws on!"
Was she serious?
"Are you being serious?"
"Where did you even get such things? Surely something so valuable would have been made a big deal out of!"
"I found it on the spice-rack when I was looking for cinnamon and I..."
"THAT WAS MONTHS AGO!"
"Daddy, Daddy! Can I go bully the Cyclops for you?"
"Wha- oh, right, Misha!" Willis had been caught off-guard by the sudden appearance of his daughter, who was being escorted by a Familiar in an apron.
"She raided my pantry, sir!"
"Did not! I'm not a boy, I don't need panties!"
A twinge of pain struck his heart, and a telepathic message entered his head.
"Spend less time with her. Really"
"I know" thought he, and noticed with gratitude that the glow of magic had faded and that Olivia couldn't see a single trace of it on his body.
"You run along dear, we have to talk some more" he said, shooing his daughter along, and she waltzed off happily, humming some happy tune as the Familiar hovered behind her, trying to ensure the little Black Dragon didn't cause more damage.
Willis let out a sigh.
"Your heart wasn't meant for this"
The Lich led Willis up to the third floor and into a room marked with the plaque "Doctoring Room". Here were several tables with various restraints attached to them, all manner of instruments, each more menacing than the last lining the walls. The place may well have been a torture chamber.
"Here it is" she said, flicking her wrist and a blob of... something flew into her hand from inside one of the many containers, the insides of which were frozen by some magic.
It seemed like an amorphous piece of flesh, with some sort of... tubes sticking out of it.
"You say this is a heart?" he asked her.
"Oh no, this isn't a heart. It will be one if you just let me stick it into you and let it take shape. It's really not all that complicated"
Willis tilted his head, staring at the thing.
"And how long would this last?" he asked.
"The process only takes about..."
"I meant the heart itself"
"Ah. As long as your flesh does, I'd say"
"Change your mind?"
Liz was displeased at her patients stubbornness.
"It really won't do to keep the one you have. It was never meant to last more than five years at most. The fact that it's still working..."
"Yes, yes. You don't have to tell me. It beats in my chest you know. I'm very conscious of the... instability" he admitted.
"Then you understand the necessity of replacing it?"
"Of course I do. But I don't want to do it. Not yet. Not until I have to"
Liz stared at him without blinking for an extended time period.
"I don't want you to die" she said finally.
"I don't want to die either", he replied, trying to smile. Of course he didn't. "Last time was plenty" he added, to lighten the mood.
"This is not funny, Will. Some silly emotional attachment to your old flesh shouldn't be any reason to risk your life. I remember one of my patients refused to have a new sword arm built for him just because he thought it was not "his flesh". That's dumb, and I will not have you die because of folly like this" she ranted, her voice betraying a tinge of fear. She must've suspected something, Willis thought to himself. She knew about the connection, but didn't even mention it.
"You know it's not my own flesh I'm attached to" he said.
"I do. And I know that you know it is within my power to let you and Rhea share your dreams even without... that" she paused before the last word for a bit to let the heart light up again with magic. But this time Willis suppressed it himself. That caught the Lich off-guard. Of course she knew he could control the magic within him. Keeping it mostly suppressed was what had allowed him to live with this heart for longer than the five years it had been meant to last. Twice as bright and half as long, so they said.
"Will... talk to me" she pleaded. Of course. It was only natural for her to have figured it out already.
"It's not just Rhea in my dreams" he said, confirming what Liz must already have suspected.
"And it's not just a Nightmare making passes at you, of course" she said, throwing a vain hope at him.
"Of course not" he crushed that hope without hesitation.
"Talk to me" she repeated, putting on her serious face again.
Willis scratched his head. This wasn't really something he wanted to talk to anyone about. He'd just make them worry needlessly. But the cat was out of the bag already.
"I..." he began, realizing he didn't really know where to begin.
Liz waved for him to lie down on one of the tables and floated next to him, her eyes changing colour as she looked into him through various different magic-enhanced views.
"I still share my dream with her, like always. But... there's a period now, a period when she most likely doesn't dream at all in her sleep, or maybe it just... just happens in such a short time period you can't really notice it, but for me... it's a long time. I... don't have those dreams every night, you understand, it's rare enough that it hasn't really affected my sleep..."
"Go on" Liz recommended.
"Well... it always begins the same way. I see a bright light, and feel an immense heat. Do you understand? Compared to the stuff that I usually experience with Rhea, the light and heat are still intense"
"Like the Sun"
"Not "like" the Sun, just the Sun. The flaming orb itself. So intimately I've never experienced anything like it. Even during the summer I can't imagine it being like that. And then, there's a shadow. It eclipses the Sun, and then there's a cool shadow, a relief. When the light no longer blinds me with the... gross incandesce, I can see an endless expanse of sand. It stretches out in all directions, to the horizon and beyond, shifting dunes and nothing else to be seen. And then the sky goes from blue to black, the Sun is replaced by the Moon and the stars, so many stars, ones I don't know, foreign constellations... it must be a real place, a distant place" he explained, feeling some relief at getting this part off his chest.
"And then?" Liz asked, her eyes now their usual hazel.
"And then... I'm sitting at a campfire. This is the first part where I'm really... present, you know, the same way I'm with Rhea. And there's a man there"
"A man?" Liz didn't even try to hide her shock at this.
"Yeah. A man, and he's wearing robes from head to toe, his hair covered in a... whatever they call that linen in the desert, his face behind a veil. But I know he's a man, because I hear him speak, and his eyes stare at me with this... this intensity. His eyes are as blue as Carlos' are. That's about all I see of him. But he speaks clearly enough. I don't know his words, his language is foreign to me. I'm pretty sure he's as confused about seeing me as I am of seeing him. And he... when it first happened, he seemed alarmed. Really alarmed. And he made these gestures, I'm sure he was trying to cast spells or something, and he called out the same word over and over, genie, genie he said. He still says so every time he sees me, but he seems less afraid as time passes..."
Liz was stuck in contemplation for a bit after hearing this.
"You're certain he said genie, and not djinni?"
"I can't tell the difference"
"Nevermind, I'm quite certain of myself in this. The man believes you to be a spirit of sorts. He believes you to be haunting him, I think"
"Well that's... lovely"
"Is that it?"
Willis shook his head.
"Then may I install a dreamcatcher in your bedroom?"
"I don't mind, but Rhea..."
"Nothing I haven't seen already, I'm a doctor. I just want a recording of it to see if I can do anything about it. There is no real precedent for such a case, so you can pardon my curiosity" she spoke in a haste, clearly enthusiastic.
"So you're not so eager to replace my heart already?"
"For your own good I should insist, but a night or two..." she blushed. That's a rare one.
"But why do you take interest in these... visions?" she asked suddenly, as if only realizing it as an afterthought.
"I'm a superstitious man by heart, if you pardon the pun..."
"No, I don't, and you shouldn't either!"
"Well, in any case, I think there's some significance to this. I know it can't be just a coincidence. That man, whoever he is, is important. For all I know he'll end up marrying Ollie" he said, and let out a hearty laugh. Oh, there's another pun.
Willis got up from the table.
"You'll handle the dreamcatcher then"
"Then I better go to the engineering department and make sure Ollie doesn't leave poor Misha too sore to sit on her ass"
"Oh, I wouldn't mind if she was given a little discipline. Girl has her head in the clouds" Liz said, smiling a warm smile. She had quite clearly already forgiven the Cyclops for the incident. "Take care of yourself Will" she added.
"I always do. And I'll make sure you get more of whatever it was you lost today. After Rhea comes back, I mean"
And with a wave he left the Lich to her wizardry and descended from the tower, heading back inside the Lair.
As he walked, Willis found himself wondering about his life. He'd been telling Olivia about a time when he'd been... a different person, almost. Someone for whom the very idea of living in a place like this would have been a nightmare, a Hell on Earth. To think he was the kind of man who could talk casually with a Lich of all things... he'd gone through quite a bit. All for the better. And all thanks to Rhea.
He had to stop walking for a bit, and was glad that nobody was around to see him double over. Best not dwell on such things. Centre yourself, look at your memories through reason, not emotion. Yeah, easier said than done.
The throbbing pain became less intense and he was able to keep going. This wasn't a time for worries. He had duties to perform.
The engineering department of the Lair was often mobile, as the need for expansions and improvements was something that never stayed put in one locale, but it was never hard to find them. Just follow the clinking noises.
This time they were located in a newly dug out cave, with support beams keeping it from collapsing, just in case. They were expanding more than was really necessary for living or storage space, but Willis wasn't one to complain. It's not like he needed the mountains to remain the way they were, and if digging around made this lot happy, then so be it.
The engineering department consisted of Dwarven men and Kobold women, most couples and their children. Rounding them up had been Rhea's idea, as she had gotten it in her head that only such a group of workers would be fitting for her service. They did a great job, no doubt about that.
"Master Willis, how'd you do?" asked a gruff Dwarf, sitting on a chair next to a mining shaft, a little Kobold on his lap, playing with his beard.
"Fine, just fine. Where's Misha?"
"Ah, she's... down there" he said, pointing down the shaft.
"And Olivia has gone down there as well I take it?"
"Is there a lift, or..."
"Just the ladder, sir. And if you don't mind my saying, the young mistress didn't use it"
"And shouted 'weeeee' all the way down?"
"That she did, sir"
"Of course she did. Is it dangerous down there?"
"Not anymore sir, though I wouldn't let the little ones in if I could help it"
"Hmm. Well, I'll be going then..."
"Would it actually help if something happened?"
"Not really sir, but it does make one feel better"
Willis descended the ladder, which seemed to go on and on forever. The light from above grew weaker and the glow from below grew stronger, however, and eventually he found himself at the bottom, a large space lit by torches. The cave-in was clear to see at the end, right behind the circle of miners who... were all circled around something. Oh dear.
He walked with all the briskness he could muster and squeezed in between the hairy Dwarves and their fluffy wives, and found himself being treated to quite a sight.
Olivia was seated on the back of the Cyclops Misha, a technical prodigy since a young age and the head of the engineering department, who was handing her head for Olivia to rest her feet on. The Cyclops' face was red with shame and her freckles beamed like little red stars. Her pants had been pulled down to her ankles, and Willis could only assume Olivia had delivered a proper spanking already.
"Hi Daddy!" the little Dragon greeted cheerfully, and have a little nudge with her toes, ordering the Cyclops to turn around so he could see the red spots on the plump bottom.
"See? I disciplined her good!" Olivia said, smiling. "I even let everyone watch so they'd know better than to be dummies like her!"
"That's very impressive dear. Now let the poor thing have some dignity"
"Eeh? But Uncle Lester is out raiding with Mommy!"
"That's... not what the word means, dear" Willis said, trying to distance himself again. This was no time to be getting heartaches.
Willis walked through the crowd of miners, picked up his daughter and told everyone to carry on as they were. The miners quickly got back to work on clearing the cave-in, while Misha slowly got up and pulled her pants on. Her eye was wet with tears, but her mouth was all smiles.
"Welcome to the shaft D-6, Master Willis" she said, brushing her hair behind her ear. "What can I do you for?"
"How about explaining what happened"
"Ah. Nothing really. Mixture was too potent. I made the necessary calculations, fixed the dosage, it's fine now. Won't happen again. Promise"
Willis let Olivia rest on his shoulders and lean on his head to get his hands free, then crossed them to look sceptical.
"Liz disapproved of this quite a bit you know"
"Ahh, so I heard. Will she banish me to a pocket dimension for some tentacles to ravage?"
"Don't get your hopes up, you're a married woman you know"
"Some lightning then?"
"You got all that's coming your way already. Now tell me what's so important about this place that you had to go blasting something so fierce"
Misha looked slightly disappointed she wouldn't be punished any further, but lightened up when she got a chance to talk about he work.
"We found a vein of copper! So close to home, too!"
"Copper?" Willis repeated, a little disappointed. That wasn't very impressive to him.
"You have no idea how important copper is for us, do you? Even Liz would be excited to hear what I've found! We can make all kinds of stuff you can't even imagine yet if we have our own steady supply of copper!" Misha talked so fast she ran out of breath.
"Just don't make the Lair collapse on us" Willis said shrugging.
"Daddy, don't move around so much!"
"Sorry dear. Come down, I'll give you a piggy-back ride back up"
"Then you don't mind us using more of the powder?" Misha asked, just to be sure.
"If you say you've fixed it, you've fixed it. You have a good one"
"You too... Master Willis..."
That girl enjoyed calling him "Master" more than she should have.
Father and daughter found their way out of the mining shaft and realized they didn't have anything on the agenda.
"Let's go take a walk in the valley" Olivia said.
"When you say walk, do you mean you intend to walk yourself as well?"
"Suuuure. Not here though. I'm riding you until we're down there!"