Without much discussion, as neither Hornet nor the Knight were given to too many words, they settled on dispatching the Dreamer Lurien first. Their footsteps were soft along the stone floor of the Spire, careful for the remains of the Watcher Knights. When they reached the lift, without words, the Knight pulled the lever, and the old elevator, as easily as the day it was made, rattled to their level. They stepped in.
The Knight's nail lay ready in one hand, their Dreamnail in the other. Hornet raised her eyes to the ceiling and let the elevator rocket upwards.
The peak of the Watcher’s Spire was unlocked and unmade. Broken tablets scattered across the floor. A telescope lay in pieces next to a broken stool. Ornate dressers and desks had long since crumbled or sagged under the weight of their own rotting wood. Hornet held her needle at the ready, and before the Knight could indicate otherwise, she stepped out first into the shadowed studio. Hornet moved with a hunter’s grace, feline and silent; the Knight’s footsteps sounded like soft padding after her.
Rain streaked across the curved windowpanes, dark lines running down the carpet. Everything they knew from the Seer told them that the Dreamer, Lurien the Watcher, would be physically, actually sleeping (as people who are dreaming tend to be doing), on a physical bed under a Seal of Binding. They held their blades at the ready and, at Hornet’s nod, the Knight slid the door to the bedroom open.
Inside, a tiny bug shuddered along the floor, feather-thin scaly legs skittering under the remains of a cloak. It twisted. Flailed. Turned around.
Its one eye opened, a beautiful, sunny shade of orange.
Lurien the Watcher opened his mouth and screamed. Infection glowed at the base of his throat.
“Get down!” Hornet commanded, as orange light like a searchlight flooded from its single eye. Vision blurred in and out, lights flashing behind her eyes. The Knight darted forward and slashed at Lurien’s leg, only for infection to gush from the open wound, sizzling along the Knight’s shell. “I said get down--”
Lurien’s spotlight eye swung towards the Knight, who froze. Shuddered. Pain knocked them to their knees, but they had no voice to cry out.
Hornet unraveled her thread and snared Lurien around the throat, wrenching him back. The spotlight eye swung wide, burning a hole through a nearby family portrait. The Knight slammed their nail into Lurien’s gut and hid their face in their cloak as orange sprayed.
Lurien thrashed. Light leaked from his wound, brighter than a lumafly’s glow, burning streaks into the upholstery around them. “Hurry!” Hornet cried.
The Dreamnail sang, hummed, sliced clean through--
Hornet stared. The Knight stared.
Lurien keened, orange light leaking from his one eye and all his wounds, the floorboards sizzling where the light landed. The Knight drew the Dreamnail again, swung. Nothing.
Hornet’s thread snapped. Lurien’s wide, single-eye glare swung around to pin Hornet to the wall. The full blast of the orange light shone through her and the window behind her, casting out into the City of Tears like a beacon, and through her own gasp of pain, Hornet could hear her mask begin to creak and crack.
The Knight darted beneath the light and slashed at Lurien’s soft neck. Light gushed from that wound, too, and Hornet spun webs through the air, dancing on her own highwire. She flared threads around her, slicing paper-thin wounds through Lurien’s shell, and slivers of light opened all along his shell like many, many pupil-less eyes. The Knight darted through her threads, streaking steel. Lurien was howling. The sound came from the gash in his throat, burbling and bubbling. He was suffocating on his own infection.
“The finishing blow!” Hornet shouted, and raised her needle.
And for one moment, she was so glad to be alive.
To be here, weightless, strong, solid, with a weapon she’d wagered her life upon in her hands, the thrill of a hunt in her veins, the whites of her prey’s eyes in her sights--this was it, Hornet realized. This was everything she’d ever wanted.
And then Lurien wailed, swelled, spilled light from every crack, and exploded into orange goop.
Hornet hated it when her prey self-destructed.
Hornet and the Knight walked into Relic Seeker Lemm’s shop covered in Infection. Lemm shrieked and shooed them out of the shop. Hornet and the Knight did the next best thing and sloughed off all the orange gunk right on Lemm’s doorstep.
“I hate kids,” says Lemm, very loudly and pointedly, but Hornet only sniffed daintily and did not apologize.
The Knight scooted onto a nearby chair and plopped Lurien's King's Idol on the counter. Lemm swept it away into his desk and replaced it with a sack of Geo.
“I merely strongly dislike kids who bring me well-preserved relics," Lemm amended. "Where on earth did you manage to get up to, to wind up like this?”
The Knight had already settled onto the chair to let Hornet explain, which she did, recounting the battle as clearly as she could manage without going into the complicated business of the Dreamers and the Dreamnail. Relic Seeker Lemm, increasingly disgruntled, glanced to the Knight as if the Knight was going to contradict her, but the Knight was already nodding off.
“If you’d come to this shop beforehand--not that I’m asking for visitors--but if you had, I could have told you that,” Lemm said, bustling out from behind the counter. He scanned his own shelves, draws a slate tablet from the neat rows. “Lurien the Watcher fell to the infection early. It was quite an ordeal for the kingdom, let me tell you. There’s a whole line of slate records of frantic letters between nobles, discussing the sad and sordid tale of Lurien the Watcher, or, as some of them liked to say, Lurien the Very Outrageously Rich Recluse. For the hobnobs in the East wing of the City of Tears to call someone ‘outrageously rich’? There was quite a trust fund, supporting Lurien’s unemployed habits.”
He handed the tablet to Hornet, who took it and accordingly held it low so the Knight could see it. Scrawled on it in hurried handwriting was a faded etching:
The Watcher is betrayed. The project is too far gone. Seek a replacement for the Watcher. Must be of close relation, family or friend.
“The details are unclear,” said Lemm, “but the Watcher was involved in some sort of project for the Pale King, near the end of his life. Whatever it was, it depended on his sound mind.”
The Knight and Hornet looked at each other. Lemm squinted suspiciously.
“What happened, Relic Seeker?” Hornet said, in the voice that was less asking and more commanding.
Lemm scowled. “Watch your tone, young lady. I only have for you what I’ve given you, and I gave it to you free of charge, at that. They sought someone who could take Lurien’s place. But if they’d known that the man they needed required friends and family beforehand, they wouldn’t have chosen the Watcher, I suspect: he was infamous for being the last of his lineage, the last of his house, unmarried, no coworkers, no contacts, and certainly no friends. He permitted correspondence from only the King. His dedicated service to the King and the King alone ultimately, I suppose, is what made him unserviceable. They never found a replacement for him, and his part of the project fell through. If they went on with the project, it must have been without him.”
“And the other Dreamers?” Hornet asked.
Lemm snorted. “What does dreaming have to do with this?”
The Knight tugged at Hornet’s hand. Hornet, at length, nodded. “Thank you, Relic Seeker,” she said, and curtseyed. “We shall not forget your aid. Let’s go, Little Knight.”
“I’m not giving you store credit,” Lemm yelled after them, and Hornet called back: “I don’t want your King's Idols, anyway!”
The Knight walked forward without expression or response. Hornet, too, went lost in thought, drifting through the City of Tears. Infected husks littered their path. They kept their blades drawn, and spoke little. If it bothered the Knight that the Dreamer that they’d come so far to see and destroy had not been as promised, it did not show.
“Ahoy there,” said Quirrel.
As if he'd always been there, Quirrel was lounging on a bench, one arm relaxed over the backrest like he was going to whip out a cup of tea and a book. “Have you been to the Soul Sanctum? It’s just a little ways east of here. It might have something of value, if you’ve the aptitude for magic.”
“We’ve a long ways to go, we can’t--” Hornet began, just as the Knight tucked their nail into its sheath and clambered up onto the bench alongside Quirrel. “…stay.”
The Knight shoved Quirrel further down the bench, then patted the free space for Hornet.
“I find standing to be adequate,” Hornet replied.
“And yet it seems like you’ve had a long day,” said Quirrel.
“And it’ll be longer still.”
“Perhaps a rest will do you good,” Quirrel suggested. “In these dangerous lands, a traveller’s got to keep their strength about them.”
“We haven’t the time for idle chit-chat.”
“I didn’t take you two to be the sort for chit-chat,” Quirrel replied. “I find that the Little Knight and I do quite well enough in a friendly silence.”
Quirrel looked at the Knight. The Knight unlatched one charm from their shell. Examined it carefully. After a long moment of staring, they replaced it with a different one, pinned precisely in the same spot.
“Say, Miss Hornet,” said Quirrel. “You never did mention how you two came to be travelling together, did you?”
“We’re not, as you say, the sort for chit-chat. Little Knight?”
The Knight looked up. Patted the bench again. Unlatched another charm, turned it over, and began rummaging for a replacement. Hornet still didn’t sit.
“Quirrel, you’ve been about these lands,” Hornet said.
“That would be true,” said Quirrel.
“Have you heard anything about Herrah the Beast?” Hornet asked.
Quirrel laughed. “Do I know anything about Herrah the Beast?”
Hornet’s eyes narrowed; something about this response, for some reason she could not name, rankled her. “Do you or not, traveler?”
“Not more than hearsay,” said Quirrel amiably. “Fearsome. Strong. Fiercely loyal to Deepnest. Was of unfortunately low birth, within the social caste of Deepnest, and always sought to have a child of high birth…”
The Knight and Hornet looked at Quirrel, but Quirrel closed his mouth in a pleasant smile, and they concluded that that was the end of his thought. The Knight tugged on Hornet’s hand. “What about Monomon the Teacher?” Hornet asked.
“The Teacher’s in her Archive,” said Quirrel unhelpfully.
Hornet made a noise of frustration. Quirrel laughed. The Knight looked up from their charms and fixed Quirrel with a long, empty stare. “I kid, I kid,” said Quirrel. “You must admit, I’ve a part to play! Cryptic traveler along a lonely road can hardly be too helpful.”
The Knight did not respond.
“Oh, very well, my friend,” said Quirrel, and settled (somehow) even more comfortably upon the metal bench. His nail rested at a precarious angle against his thigh, and his fingers stroked the handle at an even, thoughtful pace. “The Teacher’s in her Archive--always has been, and remains so to this day. It is the Teacher, now, who makes the Teacher’s Archive no place that I can recommend.”
“What’s wrong with the Teacher?” Hornet asked.
“What’s wrong with anyone, nowadays?” said Quirrel, with a tilt of his head. “I suspect you wouldn’t need three guesses.”
Hornet lowered her head. Flicked her nail, then settled it point-down. “The Teacher succumbed to the infection,” she said, like a statement. (And would be in no state to become a Dreamer, either.)
“That she did,” Quirrel replied. His voice was curiously devoid of real feeling: the same lilting inflection of politeness and pleasantry, without any politeness or pleasantry at all. The Knight looked up from their charms. Quirrel’s fingers smoothed down the handle of his nail, over and over.
“They say that Monomon remains in her Archive to this day, within the domain she built when her mind was still her own, walking her own walls as a stranger. She retains none of the intellect she was renowned for in her day. And, most curiously, many have tried to lure her out, bait her with the sight of the uninfected. So many other uninfected husks so easily chase after any sane traveler.” Quirrel smiled. “But no, not the Teacher--‘the Teacher’s in her Archive,’ as they say, and she remains in her Archive, staunchly, without explanation. She has guarded her walls zealously and fiercely ever since her infection took her.”
There was a silence. Hornet and the Knight looked at each other. For all of Quirrel’s teasing that the Knight and Hornet weren’t the type for chit-chat, this, too, was the most amount of words they’d ever heard from Quirrel in the entire time they’d known each other.
“No,” said Quirrel, raising his head, reaching some internal conclusion, “if you’re shopping for sights to see, I suggest you pass on the Teacher’s Archive. The journey through Fog Canyon is far too dangerous, and Monomon herself lurks at the end of the road, wild and mindless and merciless. Danger shall meet you step for step along such a journey.”
“Danger is no issue,” said Hornet. The Knight sat patiently, the small shape of Mark of Pride sitting upon their shell.
“If not danger,” said Quirrel, “then consider that at the end of such dangerous journey, you shall find only sorrow.”
Hornet opened her mouth to reply, but instead, the Knight hopped off the bench, patiently at the ready. They looked up at Quirrel without apology.
“I suppose you are unimpressed with my warnings,” said Quirrel.
The Knight did not respond.
“You have business at the Teacher’s Archives, I presume.”
The Knight did not respond.
“I so enjoy our talks, my small friend,” said Quirrel. “Well! If I cannot dissuade you, then I have no choice but to meet you at the Archives myself. Have you two met the Nailsmith? I see your nail is no longer quite so fragile.”
The Knight nodded.
“Excellent. And you, Hornet, already had a wonderful blade, but--”
“I can take care of myself,” said Hornet primly.
“So you can! Then if it is all the same to you,” said Quirrel, “and if you are setting off now, and if you do make your way to the Teacher’s Archives, I believe I’ll see you there.”
Hornet gave him a sidelong glance. “You’re welcome to come with us there,” said Hornet, grudgingly while trying to not sound grudging. She, Hornet, didn’t need a parental chaperone.
“Ah, but this bench is really quite comfortable,” said Quirrel. “And this city, this rainfall, this moment of peace… Some things cannot be gotten back. Indeed, most things, if it’s anything of value. It’s best to savor them while you can, for as long as you can.”
Again, Hornet opened her mouth, but the Knight only nodded and opened their map and tapped the nearest Stagway pin. “I wish you safe passage,” said Hornet, mostly to be polite.
“And you, a future of your own,” said Quirrel.
Hornet was already halfway hurrying after the Knight, who’d somehow gotten away from her on their stubby little legs. By the time it occurred to her that that was no traditional blessing she knew of, she was already halfway to the door, and when she looked back, the bench was empty.