Hearts

They always say you should follow your heart, don't they? Well, what about when your heart is speeding off on dragonback into the sunset across the Dashan ocean? That's when their advice becomes even more important.

But I'm not starting at the beginning. The beginning of this chapter of my life, anyway. It was four years ago this spring... I had set myself up as a healer and herbalist in this small town in the shade of one of the Minnang mountains. I didn't much care either way for these people, but I did care about the access I got to their dead. Too many of us just roll into cities, drag up entire graveyards for labour, and traipse on out leading a legion of shambling monsters trailing dirt all the way home. I find this calls a little too much unwarranted attention to oneself. A lich can't be an effective lich if he's being hunted by the land's most holy and most bigoted paladins. Thankfully, a fair number of us have the wisdom still to hide in plain sight. You may be surprised how many small-town gravediggers turn out to be unfeeling, undying monsters underneath the layers of a disguise spell.

The thing that nobody tells you about wrenching your soul from your body and binding it to the physical world is that it gives you a huge sense of perspective on certain matters. You no longer need to rush to complete the plans you'd made in fevered sleepless nights as a mortal. Those of us who can still assume the habits of the living do quite well walking amongst them, keeping abreast of the world's comings and goings without the need for a hall of scrying mirrors at the top of a black tower. Don't misunderstand me — I still had all that. Undeath is nothing if not a big immortal pissing contest, with awards for most clichéd residence and largest zombie army the only way of keeping score when years lived become a guess to the nearest hundred.

Show your cards too soon, though, and it's not long before the next band of do-gooders shows up to pull down all your hard work. These people can never just leave things be, can they? I suppose the frequent attempts on one's life do serve to break up the monotony, but I hadn't quite passed that threshold of boredom yet. My grand plans were still a whispered secret with not so much as a scrap of doodled-on parchment to give away the location or purpose of the construction work going on in the mountains. Going was slow to begin with, but a couple of years and a reasonable haul of fresh corpses later (who looks twice at the town's undertaker working late in a cemetery?), my task force was making enough progress to be able to notice a daily difference.

Everything was going well, until she showed up. She had always been there, I think. I'd just never had a chance to meet her yet. Yes, we may have met under sombre circumstances, but let me tell you, there was not a lifeless thing about her. Her hair was a mountain of big brown curls, always shifting, writhing, dancing. Were it not cut from my chest and sealed in a lead strongbox, my heart would have raced just to see her hair bouncing. But what really did it, when I really knew I was in trouble, was when she smiled for the first time. Her mouth never moved; a casual observer might say she looked perpetually dour, but
that's because she saved all her smile for her eyes. I have looked into the churning rivers of time... I have stared into the throbbing soul of the Abyss... I've looked Death Herself clear in the face and I still was not moved like I was by her eyes.

She was a weaver's daughter. Too good for this little town, he'd always said. Her mother was brought in one cool Saturday afternoon. Some sudden onset of the fever, apparently. She didn't smile that day; who would? Even a lich is sad when his mum dies. I didn't take that body for the construction crew — oh how now I wish I had! — out of respect for the grieving girl. I did, however, make it a point to start dropping by her father's shop more often.

Rela smiled at me for the first time not too long after that. It served only to seal what was by then already looking like an inevitable fate. Her company, the only mortal's to do so since my rebirth, made me really feel alive. For a time, I actually missed it: the surges of adrenaline, the racing pulse, the quivering of butterflies somewhere around the stomach... I understood that these were only memories of feelings, the way an amputee sometimes feels an itch in a phantom limb, but it was pleasant, whatever that was worth, to be with her and relive getting caught up in the thrill of a new relationship.

She was, of course, in love with only the glamour I affected. Once upon a time I'd been happy to get back to my mountain retreat of a night and shrug out of this human visage. Not lately. I'd started returning less and less. Where once I would visit the lead box containing my flesh heart daily, now sometimes weeks would go by without seeing it. This emotional heart had taken its place. I would draw reassurance and security and comfort from seeing Rela instead. Nights in each other's arms had replaced nights standing watch over the hundreds of bodies roving over black stone foundations. I had to tell her. Even the shadow of these emotions was the antithesis of deception. How long could I have kept this up, anyway? Have my human disguise age along with hers? Live a lie for her entire life? If there was any chance of regaining a sliver of that former connection, that intimacy of human bonding, I could not keep such a large part of my world from her. And what if everything fell apart? I was subsisting on half-remembered feelings and a spidery hope of their persistence. At times they would consume me... with nothing else to do in the nights but think about them, I could conjure up so vividly those sensations that used to vex me as a lovestruck teenager, or those that were the source of so much joy, learning magic at the Tower of Sorcery. This was like both. But time fades even feelings.

We're not soulless monsters by choice, really. We become the unfeeling overlords of death that you read about in legends over time, as the wear of immortality takes its toll. I couldn't do that to her. I wouldn't let this continue.

I decided to tell her, to show her everything. Maybe there was a chance that she'd come to appreciate what I was trying to achieve and join me in blessed unlife so we could work together. I was hopeful. Of course, she begins with playful scepticism; who wouldn't? Those glittering, smiling eyes shimmering with mirth as she awaits my explaining the jest. So, I took her. Upstairs in my house in the town there was a secret swivelling panel. It led into a small space between two rooms, inside which was a door-sized mirror. I activated the mirror with a command word to take us right to the top of my mountainside fortress. From there I could look down into the valley at the majesty of my undead army. Her eyes widened as we stepped through the vortex into my study. She said nothing to me as I stepped out to my stone balcony and bade her behold the seeds of my creation. But she did not join me. I stood there on that platform, nerves on fire, showing her my true form. My metaphorical heart was in my throat. My physical heart was in her hand. She had lifted it right out of the lead lockbox it had been kept in since the grim night of my transformation. I never locked it... why would I?

I don't know what magic she'd worked on me, if any. Maybe these shadows of feelings had been genuine and I had just made the worst amateur mistake of all. I felt the whole world shudder beneath me as Rela lifted the heart. I whirled on the spot to see her looking as unlike herself as I had ever seen. The corners of her mouth were turned up in a grin, though to my horror, I saw not a joyful smile. Her whole face was tainted with malicious glee, and even as she held my withered, blackened phylactery in her hands, my other heart broke into a thousand pieces. I collapsed, not from pain or physical damage, but from grief. She threw her head back and emitted a bestial shriek, loud enough to pierce the heavens. My back against the stone balustrade, I heard the beating of huge wings descend behind me in response to her call. She ran past me without a glance and leapt from the balcony. The beast roared and spewed billowing flames over my undead assembly, melting into a worthless stub the work they'd been carrying out. I could hear her laughter, even over the draconic screeching. It was over in seconds. I was left to watch, slumped feebly against the cold stone. The dragon's silhouette against the star-strewn sky quickly faded from sight. I was alone. Nothing here but the two holes where my heart should be.

When the sun came up, I was already on my way out of town. The dragon had flown east towards the sea, and if there was any way of catching it before it reached the ocean, I would need to move swiftly. I could tell when the heart was in motion. It would not be able to regenerate my body unless it were still, otherwise I would simply shred my current physical form and materialise beside it in a few days. Rela knew exactly what she was doing; there were probably multiple dragons running in shifts to keep it moving, but even teams of dragons have to rest — one sleeping while the other circles with the heart. What her final destination might be once she crossed the Dashan Ocean, I could not guess. If she got the heart to someone with the power to destroy it, my immortality would be brought to an unfortunate early conclusion. More likely she was taking it to someone who wished to use me, to use their possession of my heart as leverage, to command me to unleash my power against their enemies. With planning this thorough, I could foresee the insurmountable obstacles that would be obstructing my path to freedom.

My best chance is still to catch up to her before she leaves the continent. I think running into the recipient of her delivery might proceed a little more comfortably if it takes place without the threat of annihilation looming over me. I have already released the corpses that weren't incinerated by Rela's dragon. They'll provide a couple of easy meals for the mountain lions that prowl around out there in the mountains and therefore shouldn't attract too much attention if anyone were to go investigating the dragon sighting. Also, I'll need the space cleared again for when I get back. No setback is too great to interrupt my ambitions. I will start this all up again. I will settle in a new town and find a new community to integrate with. I will help them and heal them and take care of the dead. This time, though, I'll guard my heart — both my hearts — a little more carefully.