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Stag Beetles and Broken Legs

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Lemm, for obvious reasons, did not leave his tower very often. The infected husks that roamed the streets and halls were deterrent enough, nevermind the endless rain. But a bug could not remain indoors forever, if only for logistical reasons. Most days Lemm would search the store rooms of his own tower. They had almost endless supplies, perhaps for some merchant guild or general shop that had long since fallen apart in the face of the infection. Lemm could live off of those for the rest of his life.

But the thing of it was, a bug could only eat stored and preserved food for so long. So on days when the husks were especially listless, or something had attracted their attention away from him, Lemm would walk quietly through the eternally soaking streets and take the elevator up to Blue Lake. The fishing there was halfway decent, and once properly drained the catch hardly tastes infected at all. Most importantly, it was a chance to listen to something besides the endless tapping of water on glass and the scratch of his own pen.

Lemm had not seen another bug on the shore of Blue Lake in a long, long time.

How strange then, that the first one he meets in an age would be putting rocks in his shell.

Lemm freezes. The bug freezes.

“Ah,” says the bug.

“What are you doing,” says Lemm, who knows exactly what this bug is doing.

“Uhhhhh. Hm,” says the bug.

Now, not to be cranky--although Lemm would be hard-pressed to cite any other personality trait of his--but it’s rather late for offing yourself, in Lemm’s opinion. There was a whole strain of journals, diaries, old news reports recounting how, after the City of Tears was officially sealed off from the rest of Hallownest in an attempt to contain the infection, quite a few bugs gave in to despair and figured dying sooner rather than later would be the way to go, and all of a sudden taking a one-way trip to Blue Lake was in vogue. And then, of course, people realized that a husk doesn’t stay dead with the infection going around, secondary wave of panic, et cetera et cetera--the point being, the end of the world already happened, and Lemm, frankly, figured that everyone still alive was a crotchety, cranky, crusty old bastard like himself, who wouldn’t stay dead if you buried him twelve feet under with an iron casket purely out of spite. The worst is already over with. All the good reasons to dump a bunch of rocks in your shell and sink to the bottom of Blue Lake are hundred-year-old news.

“I’m…” the bug casts around like an excuse will emerge from the sand, or that perhaps he had an explanation before and simply dropped it nearby. The only thing the bug sees is rocks, sand, foliage, and his own nail stuck into the ground. It’s a fine thing, Lemm can tell even from this distance, but he is understandably not focused on it. Finding nothing, the bug turns back to Lemm and says “... collecting stones.”

It lands with an almighty thud.

“Collecting.”

“Yes.”

“Hmm.” Lemm approaches, fishing pole over his shoulder. “No, no, you can’t just tuck them into your shell.”

“I’m sorry?”

“They’ll get knocked around and damaged. Are you an amatuer? Some kind of imbecile? Obviously, if you’re going to bother collecting something, you should at least do it properly. Don’t you know anything about proper relic-keeping?”

“Uh,” says the bug. “...No, I can’t say that I do. Not my field of expertise.”

“Yes, that much is clear. Well, here, then,” says Lemm, and holds out the bag that he was going to put his fish in. “Put these in here.”

“I couldn’t take your bag,” says the bug. “I’m more than okay as I am. No need to bother with someone like me. Thank you, but--”

“Relic Seeker Lemm.”

“Is that your full name?” asks the bug, amused.

“Indeed. First name Relic, last name Lemm.”

“I’m Quirrel,” says the bug, then hesitates, as if there should be some other title, name, identity after that, but then he closes his mouth again. “Just Quirrel.”

“I’d say well met, Quirrel,” says Lemm, “but with the state of Hallownest these days, I’d be hard-pressed to call anything well. Get your rocks in this bag.”

“But—”

“The longer you argue, the longer we stand here. Because I, for one, certainly am not going anymore,” says Lemm. “An idiot like you might trip and fall and drown yourself the instant I look away, for all I know.”

Quirrel’s face doesn’t change. “I’d certainly be a kind of idiot to let that happen, wouldn’t I?”

“Correct.” Lemm shakes the bag. “Rocks. In the bag.”

Slowly, Quirrel transfers the rocks from his shell into Lemm’s bag. He glances at Lemm once, looking--well, Lemm wishes he could say Quirrel looks sheepish, but he doesn’t; Quirrel looks like he knows how to use the nail at his side. But all the rocks go in the bag, one by one, and Lemm doesn’t get skewered for making sure some idiot didn’t drown himself in the Blue Lake, and when they’re in, Lemm closes it up with finality.

“Should get these back to my shop,” Lemm says. “I run something of a relic-collecting business, you could say, if there was any such thing as a business anymore in this day and age. If you broke these open with the right tools, there could still be something of value in here.”

“In a bunch of rocks,” says Quirrel.

“Don’t think so?”

Quirrel raises his hands amicably. “I am, as you said, an amateur. Possibly an imbecile. You’re the expert. I leave it to you.”

“I am the expert,” says Lemm, grudgingly pleased. “And the expert says that there’s secrets hidden in most inconspicuous places in Hallownest. But I suppose you’d know, being a traveller. You traveller types are always running around, finding flowers and sunshine in the apocalypse.”

Quirrel hesitates. Quirrel must have a hell of a brain in there, Lemm thinks, because Lemm can practically see the gears turning in that head of his.

“I did come to Hallownest to see the sights,” says Quirrel, “yes.”

Lemm hefts the bag up, holds it out to Quirrel, and makes no comment on Quirrel’s use of past tense. “C’mon, then. I’ve got some tools back at my shop that you can use to take a look inside.”

“A kind offer, but I wouldn’t want to impose.”

“Do I look like the sort of person who’s willingly imposed upon?” says Lemm. “It’s fair trade. You use my tools, I get the benefit of protection from that nail of yours. The husks were quiet on the way here, but no guarantee they still will be on the way back.”

Quirrel looks over at his nail, still embedded in the sandy shore. It’s a well-cared-for thing, Lemm can tell even from this distance. Some sort of pure ore alloy, unless Lemm missed his guess. He can’t pinpoint the filigree from a distance, but it was easily preserved enough to be distinctive. Lemm narrows the list down to a specific era of blacksmiths from ten paces, because the only real difference between weapons and relics is that weapons never lasted as long.

Quirrel stares at the nail like it’s a foreign object, something he’s forgotten and then abruptly remembered. Then he sighs, approaches, and pulls it up. The nail makes a scraping noise as he pulls, jammed into a rock below the surface instead of soft turf. Explains how it held itself up, at least.

“Very well.” Quirrel slides the nail into his belt with an ease that feels effortlessly intimidating. No matter how delicate, that nail was not decorative. “I hope you don’t live too far?”

Lemm grunts. “Only if you think the City of Tears is a long trek.”

For the first time during the whole conversation, Quirrel actually perks up. “Ah! Truly, a lovely place to call home.”

“Feh. It’s always cold and wet, nothing ‘lovely’ about it.”

Quirrel laughs. “Cold I would grant you, but is there truly any place in Hallownest that isn’t wet?” He approaches, a bit slow with age but confident in his stride. “I’ve scarcely found a single room that doesn’t leave droplets on the shell.”

“Drop lets !” Lemm keeps pace, gesturing with his fishing rod. “There’s a world of difference between droplets and drops! Droplets appear without any sound. Drops never do anything without an entire racket.”

“I thought you were commenting on the wet, not the noise.” Quirrel looks back, a glint in his eyes.  

“I can do both at once.”

 

*

 

The City of Tears, even after all this time and all this rot, shines. The brightest jewel in Hallownest’s already magnificent crown. When the city was constructed, the best architects in the land created a beautiful and functional capital, every square carved and honed to perfectly compliment the eternal rain. A more practical, small-minded kingdom might have placed the city elsewhere, or fought against the tide. Not the bugs of Hallownest. Instead they saw the elegance in eternal rain, the beauty of the dimmed and yet refracted light of the lumafly lamps, the cheerful staccato rhythms of water on glass.

The spires, numerous as they are, remain standing because they were made with the strongest of materials. The rain running down their sides does not degrade them, for clever engineers steered the water’s endlessly patient destruction far away from supports and foundations. Given a thousand years, these towers would stand. There is even brilliance in the Waterways, carrying the endless current through countless storm drains. No puddles stood stagnant on the streets, for it always flowed to the Waterways and canals instead.

After the engineers came the artists, the craftsmen. They honed the city’s image, forged the iron and carved the stone, shaped the glass for its thousand windows with careful hands and the hottest fires. It was built to be a city united, standing together to proudly be the centerpiece of the Kingdom at the center of the world.

Ah, how ambitious. How bold.

How impossibly idiotic.  

The shambling corpse of a nobleman, someone who had never touched a tool of creation in his life, falls to Quirrel’s nail. He moves with precision, making quick work of any infected husks unfortunate enough to get in their way. Or, more accurately, unfortunate enough to be unavoidable. No sense in making a ruckus.

The craftsmen who built the City of Tears would surely be horrified they would be to see their pride and joy fall into ignorant decadence, then to chaotic fear, and finally to shambiling rot on legs. Damnation thrice over. Like Lemm said: impossibly idiotic. Any historian worth their salt knows that everything built falls to rot in the end.

Lemm adjusts the fishing rod on his shoulder, and his wandering mind tosses another thought his way: If Lemm takes a walk to Blue Lake to catch a fish and comes back with a strange bug with a fancy nail, does that make Quirrel a “catch”?

Lemm chuckles to himself. Quirrel catches the noise but doesn’t question beyond a glance. Any traveler as well seasoned as he was could spot a wandering mind. It comes from so much time alone, with only the self for company, but it is, still, a peculiar situation, that Lemm might have to explain the morbid jokes he makes to himself to pass the time. It’s not common to have company. He hasn’t yet gotten to the point of talking to the husks, thank you.

“Up the elevator,” says Lemm gruffly, rather than explain, and points.

“Following the sign?” says Quirrel.

“Noticed that, did you? Got to advertise the business.”

“Have a lot of customers for a business nowadays?” Quirrel asks, sounding amused.

“Loads,” says Lemm, without expression, and kicks the elevator lever. “Dozens. Up to my shell in them. Won’t leave me alone.” Quirrel covers what’s probably a smile with a hand, and when the elevator drops, Quirrel lets Lemm get into the lift first.

Maybe Lemm’s been alone too long, but he wonders where, on his neatly-ordered shelf of relics, he’d put Quirrel’s sense of propriety. No need for manners in the end of the world, is there? Where does a sense of values, morality, a sense of chivalry categorize as a relic of an older time? There’s value in anything and everything--probably. In theory. Everything can be reused, if only for wonder. The view of the City disappears as the elevator rises.

Quirrel drops off the bag of rocks at Lemm’s doorstep, like Quirrel’s forgotten about his whole excuse they came back here in the first place, which was that Quirrel was, apparently, “collecting” rocks in his shell. (You’d think if you were going to lie , you could at least keep your story straight.) “Come on, then,” says Lemm.

Quirrel looks at him blankly. Oh, dear wyrm, he really has forgotten.

“You want me to invite you in for tea or what,” says Lemm grumpily.

“Oh!” says Quirrel, which sounds like a promising sound of realization until Quirrel says: “No, er, I’ll have to… respectfully decline the invitation. You’ve been very kind, and I can’t stay and burden you with my own troubles. I’m afraid I’d make a disappointing partner in this particular avenue--”

“WAIT,” says Lemm.

“--and it wouldn’t be fair to you. Personally, I’ve met many vibrant and interesting people on my journey, and surely if you desire a companion for the night, surely you could find someone more amenable to your needs. Your age and experience would be no bother. You needn’t settle--”

“No shut up stop talking,” says Lemm. “I mean that the equipment is inside.”

Quirrel looks at him blankly.

“The equipment for investigating your rocks.”

Quirrel frowns.

Literal actual tools, like hammers and chisels, to investigate actual geological stones,” Lemm clarifies quickly. “Because that was why you went to Blue Lake. To collect stones and artifacts.”

“Oh!” says Quirrel.

“Which means ,” says Lemm clearly, enunciating his words, “that I’m inviting you in to use those tools--”

“Yes, yes, I’ve got it! Collecting stones. Tools in your shop. Yes. Of course.” Quirrel clears his throat.

“--and I’m going to serve you real, non-euphemistic tea--”

“Let’s just go in,” says Quirrel.

Lemm raises his eyes to the sky, unlocks the shop door, and asks all the dead gods why he deserves this bullshit for trying to do good deeds.

 

*

 

It’s strange, how familiar tasks are made unfamiliar just by the presence of another person. Lemm can’t even count the amount of times he’s boiled himself a pot for tea, but now with Quirrel sitting in Lemm’s small study every action feels off kilter. What did he normally even do while waiting for the water to heat up? Surely not stand there and stare at it. And yet, that is all Lemm can think of. The atmosphere is thick, awkward, pierced only by the eternal patter of the rain outside. Should he get out the teapot and cups now? Or should he wait until the pot is ready? Should he have offered food? What food does he even have? Certainly nothing that goes with tea.

Damnation, when had Lemm started to care about any of this? Tea is tea, and his tea is good! Taken from a long abandoned but well preserved specialty shop some four blocks from here. Besides, Quirrel seems perfectly content to sit and look around Lemm’s more private space, where he keeps the truly rare artifacts.

Lemm leaves the door to the kitchen open, of course. Inviting someone in didn’t suddenly make Lemm stupid.

“This is a… marvelous collection you have,” Quirrel says, eyes landing on a particularly well-preserved King’s Idol. He sounds genuine, and Lemm can’t help but preen at the lilt of awe in his voice.

“Of course it is. Did you think I was joking, when I said I collect relics?” Lemm grumbles anyway. No sense in being too appreciative.

“I think I did,” said Quirrel, reaching for an older text slate. “No sense in collecting any relics in this day and age--hardly a market for it, is there?”

“There is a market. It’s me. And use gloves if you’re going to handle that one,” Lemm says. Right then the kettle whistles. Lemm takes it off the heat, pours the boiling contents into his (practical yet elegant) teapot and brings the small tray over to the coffee table. Quirrel has dutifully snatched his hand away and peers as closely as he can at the text without touching it, totally absorbed. The tea still needs to properly infuse, so Lemm takes the moment to gather supplies for tonight’s projects.

He hauls up a box of tools, which hits the workdesk with a thud and a clatter. “Half of relic keeping is proper care and tools,” Lemm says.

“All these artifacts are so well-preserved,” Quirrel goes on, only half-listening. His attention has shifted from the text (a difficult and possibly singular dialect Lemm is only halfway through translating) and back towards the row of solem, royal statues on Lemm’s shelf. “Outrageously valuable wares, King’s Idols... “

“And they’re not for sale, and they’re not preserved for show,” Lemm replies. “I’m the buyer and the seller and the collector.”

“What an eye for detail. Your shelves are full of love.”

Lemm coughs. He’s absolutely certain that Quirrel’s two seconds from feeling awkward about what he just said, so he shoves the toolbox at Quirrel. “Hurry up. Take one of these before I collect dust, waiting for you to move.”

Quirrel gives the bag of rocks one last look. One last chance to admit he wasn’t collecting rocks after all. Lemm watches Quirrel with beady eyes, wondering if now, at this late hour, he’ll go back on his sense of propriety, if only to get out of this shop. (And go where? Back to Blue Lake?) One last chance, if Quirrel is willing to admit the truth.

“Thank you,” says Quirrel, instead.

Lemm waves a hand irritably and pours the tea. It hasn’t steeped nearly long enough, but he needs that drink. Cup in hand, he plops himself down at his workbench. Quirrel, at length, selects a small magnifying lens and a scalpel (for what? It’s a damned rock), and returns to the armchair. Lemm ducks his head and fishes out an arcane egg, wrapped in preservative oil cloth, and keeps his eyes on his work. That little knight sold him two at once; he has a backlog to get through; he’s not feeling awkward. He’s an old hand at dragging stray bugs to his shop, he is; has ages and ages of experience of pointedly not talking about a drowning that didn’t happen. What, you haven’t? Surely, convincing someone to stay alive in the affermath of the apocalypse is practically a universal experience.

Lemm glances back up. Quirrel is staring at Lemm’s shelves full of Hallownest’s history, a tired, longing look on his face. The teapot sits untouched on the table.

“You can touch them, you know,” Lemm grumbles. “Just wear some gloves.”

“I couldn’t,” says Quirrel.

“Posh. I say you can.”

“I couldn’t,” says Quirrel again, resigned. 

Oh, and Lemm’s dragged in the stray bug’s stray melodramatic baggage with him, too. By god and wyrm.

He puts a magnifying lens to one eye and begins peeling apart the layers of the arcane egg, working with tweezers, knives, tiny scissors as thin as the point of a nail. The metal tools snip and clatter against the patter of the rain outside. The shop darkens as the light outside begins to dim and the lumaflies in their lanterns turn to settle. By the time he looks up, Quirrel’s eyes are closed, and he’s breathing softly and slowly in the armchair, the lake stone nearly slipping out of his hand. The nail still rests dutifully at Quirrel’s side. In the better light, the nail’s blade shines with inscriptions: flowing and long, forming no words or patterns but etched with care.

Lemm is not a planner. He’s a collector and amateur historian. He doesn’t pretend to know how to deal with that whole--whatever Quirrel is. There are no answers in the Relic Seeker’s shop: only stories, still heavy with unspooling lives, patient in their shelves. So Lemm only grunts, adjusts his eyepiece, and goes back to work through the long night.

An hour later Lemm realizes he forgot to actually pour Quirrel a cup of tea.

Chapter Text

The Archive. Harsh wind of the wastes beating against his shell. A disgusting, orange, sickly taste in his mouth. His nail in one hand. His nail on the shore of the Blue Lake. Uumuu drifting through serene tanks of nonsense he can read; Uumuu shrieking without sound, but he can hear it anyway. Monomon’s gaze. Two eyes, dark with meaning he doesn’t understand. Even now, as Quirrel tries to hold it close, the image fades, evaporating like mist over a hot spring: the ghost of warmth without feeling warm.

The drum of rain, the burble of running water, the fizz and hiss of acid popping, footsteps on a gravel shore. It’s quiet, here. Thank the gods for quiet. The sound of nothing at all is the most peaceful sound Quirrel has ever heard.

His nail, point-down, in the shore of the Blue Lake. A nail in the hand of his short, wandering friend. Blade out, held in challenge; that blade in Uumuu’s rotten core; that blade in Monomon’s heart.

Only silence now.

His nail, point-down, in the shore of the Blue Lake. A wanderer in a grey cloak, tiny, without age. A wanderer’s hand held out. A wanderer’s hand with a pure nail, challenge extended. Strange eyes going from nail in the Blue Lake shore to Quirrel. The nail won’t come out of the shoreside anymore. It is there to stay. Quirrel is here to stay.

Only silence here.

His nail, point-down, in the shore of the Blue Lake. The rain below his feet. Here is the source of the wonder of the City of Tears. There are no more mysteries to be solved and no more wonders to see and no more fights to be had. A wanderer’s hand held out. A wanderer’s hand with a pure nail, challenge extended. A wanderer’s hand with a strange, glowing nail.

No, only silence on the shore of the Blue Lake. Quirrel will not go anywhere any longer. This is the most peace that Quirrel has ever known, and with luck, he thinks he can make it last forever.

 

*

 

Quirrel opens his eyes already knowing his dreams were only that, and that they will soon fade into the recesses of his mind, forgotten.

The first thing he sees is a pair of inky black voids three inches from his face.

Quirrel startles, reaching for his nail on instinct. A blanket slips off of his shoulders and his fingers find no metal. He is in a study, rain pattering on the glass window to his left, and directly in front of him is his short wanderer friend. They stare up at him for their spot on the couch next to him, stoic as always, but for the first time, they reach out a hand and place it flat on Quirrel’s face.

Quirrel blinks, attempting to understand what they’re trying to communicate, when a third voice chimes in.

“Alright, enough of that! Just because I let you back here doesn’t mean you can be rude to my guest.”

Slowly, the small hand strokes down Quirrel’s face.

Maybe Quirrel is really dead. Maybe he’s still dreaming. (Ever since the infection, he supposes dreaming and dying aren’t too different.) The expressionless wanderer, who’d never said a word to Quirrel in all their time together, who’d driven their nail into Uumuu’s heart, who’d fought the Mantis Lords and won, is definitely not stroking Quirrel’s face.

Ah, no, they’re definitely doing that.

They’re doing it again, even.

“I said to leave it alone,” Lemm tells the wanderer grumpily. “Your friend is here. He’s even alive. I haven’t cooked and eaten him, either.”

Satisfied, the small wanderer removes their hand, hops up on the bench, and sits next to Quirrel, as if this were any other bench throughout the rest of Hallownest, just a chance meeting on the wayward road.

“No, you can’t stay!” Lemm snaps. “That’s Quirrel’s seat. This is the backroom, to boot! For me and my employees only! Customers stay out front where they belong.”

The wanderer looks pointedly at Quirrel, then back at Lemm, as if Quirrel should somehow be an explanation for why the wanderer will not remove themselves from this seat. Quirrel sits up properly and rubs the sleep out of his eyes.

“He’s a special case, and just because you know each other, doesn’t mean you get the same rights,” Lemm says tartly.

“I fell asleep on you in your own home,” says Quirrel, with a short laugh. “How embarrassing.”

Lemm, for his part, is sitting exactly where Quirrel last saw him: at his desk, with his eyepiece on, studying the same arcane egg from last night. Quirrel, in turn, is sitting exactly where Quirrel last remembers being: staring at Lemm’s shelves of Hallownest’s history, cold tea on a nearby table, except now he has a blanket half draped over him.

“Don’t act like it’s such a huge bother,” says Lemm. “All you did is sleep. This one, on the other hand, is a different story--this one saw me holding your nail and wouldn’t leave my shop until I’d let them in. I’m assuming you two know each other.” Lemm thinks about this. “Otherwise, this is going to be very awkward.”

“No, no, we know each other,” says Quirrel, with an appraising glance at the wanderer. “Or so I would like to think.”

The wanderer looks up at Quirrel. The wanderer’s nail is sitting patiently in their lap. ( The wanderer’s nail in Uumuu’s rotten core-- )

“We’ve certainly seen each other around, at any rate,” says Quirrel. “I’m touched you came to find me--” ( Monomon’s tank, empty and cold ) “--but we should both be off. Lemm, I didn’t mean to fall asleep on you, and I apologize for my imposition and thank you for your generous hospitality. But I’ve imposed too long as it is, and my imposition has only led to my short friend following suit. We should  head back to the road where we belong.”

Quirrel stands and scans the room for his nail. Like a true collector, Lemm had placed the weapon in a spare holster, hanging properly on the wall and everything. Falling asleep with a weapon strapped to his side wasn’t unusual, but having someone around who cared that had happened is extremely so. But as Quirrel stands, the wanderer gestures wildly.

“What is it?” says Quirrel,

The wanderer pats the bench besides them with insistency.

“I’m sorry, my short friend, but I’m afraid I don’t follow,” says Quirrel, as if he doesn’t understand a very clear and obvious attempt to have him sit back down.

“I think they’re--”

“We’re leaving now,” Quirrel interrupts Lemm, and picks the nail up from its holster.

He turns around to see a wanderer’s journal in his face.

“Wh--” says Quirrel, looking at his short friend blankly. “What is…”

Even as Quirrel looks at the journal, he can make out a few words: ...wastes stretch deeper... and the air… noxious... than rumored... prepared… an acidity… melt a bug’s shell... the acid that rained in my youth--

“This is from the Fungal Wastes?” Quirrel asks. The wanderer puts the journal in his hand, and Quirrel examines it further. “Oh, I see--the acidity of the wastes’s climate must have risen since this record was written… Fascinating! I don’t believe there’s any other records of the time, so I can only take this long-dead wanderer at their word, don’t I?”

“Let me see that,” says Lemm, craning his neck over his desk. To Quirrel: “That’s two hundred geo.” To the wanderer: “Don’t play coy with me. If you’ve come to sell, I know you can do better than this.”

“Two hundred geo?” Quirrel asks.

The wanderer points to the wanderer’s journal, then holds out a small bag of geo, presumably their wallet. They point inside.

“You’re mistaken, friend,” says Quirrel quickly. “I’ve only spent the night here, I haven’t quite yet reached the level of working here. As it stands, I don’t believe the Relic Seeker is hiring. If you’ll excuse me, both of us should really be removing ourselves from Lemm’s personal rooms...”

Something in the wanderer’s shoulders squares itself.

In the next two minutes, Quirrel rapidly acquires a lot of information about his short wandering friend: stoic, for one. Strong, he already knew. On a mission blessed by Monomon. (Monomon’s killer.)

And also, apparently, hoards half the debris of Hallownest somewhere under their cloak.

Journals, tablets, shiny rocks, bits of bone, records made of weaver’s silk--Lemm examines them all with an unimpressed noise. “That’s fifty,” he says occasionally to Quirrel, as if expecting Quirrel to somehow know where Lemm keeps his geo to pay the wanderer for their found wares. “That one’s twenty-- no , I won’t go higher. If you want more geo, get better wares. Show me the King’s Idols, you little flirt; I know you’ve got them.”

The wanderer gives what seems like a full-body eye-roll, rummages under their cloak, and finally holds up a King’s Idol not to Lemm, but to Quirrel.

“Please, I already told you-”

“Wait…” Lemm cuts him off, standing for the first time since this conversation started. “Is that… No, even you couldn’t have found this.”

King’s Idols are already unspeakably rare; owning one was a mark of the highest prestige before Hallownest fell. After, Quirrel doesn’t quite know (and he isn’t sure if he should remember), but he suspects their value only increased in the chaos. This particular Idol is sharper than Quirrel remembers, and the King is holding his nail, point down, which is unusual--

Wait.

“The Idol of the Mad Champion?! ” Quirrel blurts out.

Lemm turns to him, an excited grin emerging behind his beard. “Ha! I knew it! Those markings are too distinctive to be anything else!”

Quirrel takes the Idol from the wanderer’s hands, examining it carefully. “I can’t say for certain but… the only Idol he ever rewarded for prowess in combat certainly fits these design choices.”

Lemm nods. “And the only Idol depicting the King armed. If I was a wagering bug, I’d say it’s one of only a few depictions of him armed, period. For whatever reason, the King preferred his strength be shown in other ways.”

Quirrel’s mind whirs, dredging up the bits of history he’s carefully curated (and remembered). “Although he certainly wasn’t above the usage of force--the Colosseum was his idea, according to the rumors I’ve heard.”

“Yes, but you’d have to factor in the tensions with the Mantis Tribe at the time. The Mantises don’t have a type of currency to this day , if I’m not wrong; their conceptualizations of power are purely strength of body and strength of will.”

“True! In that context, the entire Colosseum was made in part to demonstrate the strength of Hallownest, to demonstrate that we could play the same game, but for geo and amusement--for sport --effectively mocking the sanctity of the Mantis’s sacred, more ceremonial combat...”

Lemm scratches his beard. “But what does that tell us of the champion herself?”

“There, my knowledge fails me. I never met her myself. I only know the rumors that something about the series of events led her to feel tainted in her victory, and she ran off into the wastes beyond Kingdom’s Edge.”

“If she did, she must have left this behind while doing it.”

Quirrel and Lemm glance back towards the wanderer in the same instant, and they reply with a small shake of their head.

“Wherever you found this, it is still a King’s Idol," says Lemm, undeterred. "I can hardly adjust my price now. 800 geo, as always.”

The wanderer actually draws up to their full height (and does it with such gravitas that Quirrel wishes they weren’t so painfully short) and glares at Lemm (again, with such gravitas that would have left a stronger impression if their face was capable of making expressions).

“Lemm, surely you can part with a little more geo than that,” says Quirrel. “We did just have a whole conversation about its importance in front of them.”

“Hmmm…” Lemm strokes his beard. “Must we? This could establish a bad precedent.”

“Perhaps, but perhaps not. After all, if rarer items fetch a better deal, it encourages brave souls to find you rarer items.”

“Yes, obviously,” Lemm says, leaning back in his chair, fingers tented in his lap. “But is a single item that much rarer than any other King’s Idol? All King’s Idols have tales. None of those were worth a single geo more than 800.”

Quirrel ponders, chin in hand. “But one so intriguing, from such a unique point in the history of Hallownest…”

“...Fine. Fine! Twist my arm in the customer’s favor! 850 geo.”

Quirrel laughs. Only a 50 geo raise! “1000 geo,” he replies.

“1000 geo! Ludicrous,” says Lemm, in the tone of voice that tells Quirrel he knows it’s completely and entirely rational. “900, and that’s my final offer.”

Final offer , he says, as if Lemm could convince anyone for a second that he’d let such a King’s Idol escape his collection. Quirrel taps a single finger along the corner of his own smile. “950. If you don’t mind utterly devaluing such craftsmanship, that is. We both know that a thousand was already too low.”

“925 and…” Lemm turns, shuffles through his desk drawer while Quirrel tries not to sigh at Lemm’s incorrigible stinginess, and emerges with a piece of wrought iron. “925 with this thrown in for free. And that is my final final offer.”

“What is it?” Quirrel leans in, but his initial impression is all he can glean. It’s a piece of iron, incomplete but not broken. He can’t make heads or tails of it.

“Haven’t the foggiest.”

“You’re going to pay for a King’s Idol with 925 geo and a… piece of junk,” says Quirrel.

“It’s part of something larger,” says Lemm, who almost doesn’t sound like he’s lying through his teeth just to save 25 geo. “And if this pale wanderer here bring back whatever it’s part of, I can pay a little more.”

By god and wyrm. What does a bug need to hoard money so tightly for nowadays, anyway? Quirrel turns back to the wanderer. “What say you? Is that acceptable, friend?”

The wanderer thinks for a moment, looking at the piece of iron with the stillness Quirrel has learned to be their interest, and then nods.

Well, if they’re okay with it, Quirrel will find a way to be content with this highway robbery. “A happy transaction for all,” he declares, clapping. “Now, Lemm, where do you keep the ge--”

Quirrel stops. Runs through the entire exchange in his mind.

This wasn’t right. When had he gotten comfortable? Wasn’t he supposed to be on his way? What was he doing, acting like he belonged here--here, in Lemm’s shop, in this foreign time and place, so long and far from the Archives where he should have lived and died?

“In the front, second drawer on the right,” Lemm says, and hands off a key to Quirrel, who takes it with a distant, disembodied feeling. “You want to pay them geo so badly, you can do it yourself. I’m going to go wrap up this… whatever this is.” And Lemm snatches up the iron whatever-it-is and whisks over to the far side of the room, where a set of wrapping cloths has been stored. Slowly, Quirrel takes the key and does as he’s told; he goes to the front room, to the front desk, unlocks the second drawer on the right, and pulls out the cashbox.

And now Quirrel is behind the counter, like a proper cashier, with the key to the store’s cash in his hand, about to do a goods-for-geo transaction. He stares at his own hand like it belongs to someone else.

It’s as if he works here.

The wanderer pats the countertop. As if in a dream, Quirrel unlocks the cashbox and counts out nine-twenty-five geo, which disappears into the wanderer’s wallet, which in turn disappears under the wanderer’s cloak.

Lemm comes back with the iron piece wrapped in an old cloth and a leather string and holds it out to the wanderer. “Careful with this,” he warns. “It’s heavy, and rather larger than you are--”

The wanderer takes the iron piece, which is nearly two headspans longer than they are, and slowly pushes it under their cloak, where it disappears completely.

“Okay,” says Lemm. “That makes sense, I guess.”

The wanderer points enthusiastically from Quirrel to Lemm.

“Ugh,” says Lemm, disgusted. “That’s true.”

“What?”

“You’ve even got the head for history, too,” Lemm tells Quirrel, as if expecting Quirrel to have understood the very large memo he missed. “My collection has grown rather large, it’s true, and I could use another pair of hands… particularly a pair of hands that knows how to use a nail, whatwith how many infected husks think the City of Tears is prime real estate…”

But seeing something on Quirrel’s face, Lemm’s thoughtful expression shutters closed. “Just an observation. Don’t mind me. I don’t run your life. Take it however you like--or don’t take it at all, if you’d rather.”

The wanderer is not so deterred: if anything, something about their body language seems even more expectant. It is unfortunate, then, that Quirrel has long resolved to disappoint those expectations. “It’s a flattering observation,” says Quirrel, “but as I’ve mentioned, I really must be off.”

“In a rush to get someplace?”

“Maybe not a rush, but I’ve got to go.”

“Anyplace in particular?” says Lemm, as if he thinks Quirrel would openly admit to heading straight back to the Blue Lake if Lemm asked.

“Just elsewhere,” Quirrel replies. He puts the key back on the counter, pulls his nail from the hanging scabbard--

But as Quirrel turns, something catches his hand. Wrapped around his finger is a strange, almost cool sensation, eerily smooth and entirely firm. Quirrel turns, and is greeted once again by the blank face of the small wanderer.

Now, Quirrel has never had the pleasure of truly holding a conversation with his short wandering friend. With bugs who don’t speak, they usually sign; with bugs who can’t sign, they usually gesture; with bugs who can’t gesture, they use their expressions, to at the very least communicate if they’re happy, sad, upset, and so on. This tiny wanderer, in all the time Quirrel has known them, does not speak, nor sign, nor gesture, nor emote whatsoever. They can write, but they don’t write anywhere but on their map. They can draw, but they’ve never drawn anything for art or pleasure. Quirrel’s sometimes-friend does three things, and three things very well: wandering, fighting, and silence.

It’s at this late hour that Quirrel realizes that the silence speaks more than anything they could possibly say: the silence of sharing a bench together on separate roads, the silence of the Archives, the silence on the shore of the Blue Lake. What a odd and wonderful creature, Quirrel has thought, and still does now. What a vast and unknowable friend, if they are that at all; but at this moment, Quirrel has the distinct feeling that he may not know his wandering friend, but his friend knows him .

In that moment, Quirrel is suddenly struck by how truly small the wanderer is. Every conversation they’ve ever had has been Quirrel looking down to meet their gaze while they crane their neck to meet his. He knows they are capable, seen it first hand and the path cleared after them (The Archive littered with the dissolving bodies of Oomas), but in that moment, for the first time, all Quirrel can see is--

( “They were all children.” Long, gelatinous tendrils, wrapped around a vial of words. “The plan required only one child, and yet--like any project, a perfect iteration does not exist without the thousands, millions of other failed attempts. The failures, too, were necessary to the creation of the success, and it is equally necessary for the erasure of these many failures for the success of the one.”

Inside the vial, a report written by Monomon herself drifts back and forth. A body count. A death toll, encased in fragile, breakable glass.

“Quirrel, dear. Please get me a hammer.” )

The small, cool grip tightens. The wanderer’s hands are so small that they barely wrap around the width of Quirrel’s finger.

Slowly, Quirrel hangs his nail back on the wall.

“Right. Of course,” says Quirrel, almost without thinking. “You’re still owed a fair amount of coin, aren’t you? For all the other items.”

The wanderer nods. Their grip loosens, but only just. They don’t let go completely until Quirrel wanders back in the direction of the cashbox.

“Lemm?” Quirrel says, though the words feel as though they’re floating out of his mouth. “How much was our friend owed for the rest of their items?”

“Two thousand sixty five!” Lemm calls from the back. The wanderer taps the counter rapidly. “Not a geo more!” The tapping increases in ferocity and tempo. “Don’t give in! That’s the exact amount and you can’t trick an old man with that nonsense!”

The wanderer huffs without noise. As Quirrel gathers up a truly ludicrous amount of geo once again (how on earth does Lemm possess so much to begin with?), he counts the geo by type and amount, straightening them into rows and piles, and watches the logic of a simple truth line itself up in front of his eyes.

“You’ve really taken a shine to my staying here, haven’t you?” Quirrel asks.

This time, he gets the stoic stare he’s come to expect from his friend.

“I suppose there is some benefit to staying in one place for a time,” says Quirrel. He pushes five-piece geo into an orderly row, ten-pieces in another. “For one, you’ll know where to find me and my aid, rather than wondering which bench I’ll turn up at next. Am I right?”

The pale head tilts. But eventually, as if unsure (and when is the wanderer ever unsure?), they nod.

As Quirrel suspected. Of course Lemm and the wanderer want him around. Even a person like Quirrel has some uses. He was knowledgeable before his memory returned, and handy with a nail besides. Now, he’s even more useful, considering the bits of memory that come back to him every so often. What sense is there in letting a perfectly functional nail go to rot on the beach, or an entertaining source of history trivia? So long as there are people who desire his skills, Quirrel will stay a bit longer.

He will stay until they run out of use for him.

Because Quirrel knows that they will, later if not sooner. What use could a broken down relic like him have, even to a collector of them? What use could an old, half-excuse for a scholar or knight be in an age that has no place for either one? The Archives are gone. Half of Quirrel’s memories are, too. Uumuu is cut down. Monomon...

When Quirrel puts the geo in the wanderer’s open wallet, the wanderer looks up at Quirrel with a tilt of their head.

“Then if you insist, I’ll give some thought to the Relic Seeker’s suggestion,” says Quirrel at last. “This way, if you so desire my help in battle again, you will know where I can be found.”

The wanderer’s head tilts the other way, with what might be a question, or maybe worry.

“It’s no imposition. I offer my help to you freely. Do not hesitate to call upon me,” says Quirrel. “I’m always happy to be of service.”

The wanderer deflates with relief. Quirrel smiles reassuringly, for once actually feeling reassured himself: Relic Seekers like Lemm or his wandering friend only keep relics of value, after all. And Quirrel is not so conceited.

Chapter Text

Lemm isn’t one for conversation. His social skills are thoroughly limited to talking about old dusty objects, with exceptions made mostly for older and dustier objects. Old and dusty things don’t ask Lemm to talk, or (even worse) talk about himself, or (even worse), to make small talk.

He’d really rather face a horde of infected husks than talk to someone about the weather. It is significantly more socially acceptable to run away from the first. Running away from the second takes some doing. You’d practically have to hole yourself up in an abandoned unchanging kingdom populated only by the walking dead in order to avoid small talk, which is a very specific example that definitely has nothing to do with Lemm.

The point, however, is that Lemm agrees to allow Quirrel to stay in Lemm’s blissfully people-free, small-talk-free shop with no small amount of reservation. He does agree--gods and wyrm know why (something about having a heart, or whatever)--but he agrees, and then promptly braces himself for having to fend off small talk at every turn, so help him.

This does not happen.

Instead, Quirrel spends long hours staring out the window, listening to the rain, or maybe waiting for his short wanderer friend to come back. He keeps Lemm’s backroom cleaner than Lemm ever managed himself, without being prompted or fanfare and with an almost terrifying sensitivity to the way Lemm likes his living spaces organized. Which Lemm can’t complain about by technicality, and he has no way of explaining his growing awareness that there are now two people living in this shop but that a visitor would never guess from the rooms themselves: all of Lemm’s personal items are in every nook and cranny, while all of Quirrel’s things are still in a travel bag, tucked by the door, as if ready to leave at any moment.

Quirrel goes outside sometimes to stare down the long hallways of the city building outside Lemm’s shop, but never strays too far, and always takes his nail with him, just standing there in the empty hallway with his hand on the nail’s hilt. “I like sightseeing,” Quirrel explains once, but Lemm thinks that surely seeing the same hallways for the tenth time in five days can’t be that interesting.

By technicality, it’s the least painful cohabitation Lemm could ever expect. It’s serviceable. Quirrel appears very good at making himself serviceable, and also nearly invisible, to the extent that Lemm wonders if he imagined Quirrel turning over a King’s Idol in his hands with bright eyes and excitement.

Then Lemm walks into his own backroom one day, and finds the whole thing reorganized.

By the time Quirrel finds him, Lemm’s been elbow deep in examining the archiving system for the last half an hour, and the first thing Quirrel has the gall to do is apologize: “I just got carried away with it,” he says, looking almost chastised. “I meant to put away the shield you brought in yesterday, so it’ll be easy to undo…”

“These relics are organized by social class,” Lemm interrupts, and before Quirrel can misinterpret: “You mad creature, that’s genius.”

Quirre lights up. “It is, isn’t it? I didn’t come up with the idea, I should mention, and I think I took the system for granted back in the day, but I always did think that putting class first and era secondarily was excellent from tracing how a social caste developed over time.”

“You can practically see the birth of the knighted class!” says Lemm delightedly, tracing the shelf full of knight’s crests and bits of broken nail. “Look at all this common-made steel, and then the same designs made in pale ore as the nobility co-opted the ‘personal knight’ model--the filigree work on this one here isn’t just a class marker but a birth marker. Fifty years in, the lower beings are virtually eliminated from knighthood.”

Quirrel nods, gesturing over to the next section of items. “And putting the progression side by side with the change in the artifacts of nobility, you can see the evolution from practical utility to a full caste of their own right, with unique ceremony and cultural rules. The shift was very dramatic, if memory serves.”

“Looking at the records, you’d think it was overnight. Perhaps the mystique of the nobility couldn’t tolerate needing any old bug with a weapon keeping them alive.”

“Or some well-meaning mercenary horribly embarrassed a member of the Court. Either is likely.”

“By the gods, I can’t even imagine the cultural constraints in the Pale Court. The records on good manners from the nobility sector of the City of Tears are obnoxiously strict as it is. What a waste,” says Lemm. “To take a perfectly good model of contracted loyalty--ingenious, the amount of personal safety and peace of mind that having a completely devoted, loyal knight could give you! To have a socially-sanctioned reason for someone to stay at your side, without any reason to betray you, with a nail always at your service--and outrageously high-quality nails, too.” Lemm scowled. “And then they chose to dress up their knights as arm candy. If it weren’t for the meritocratic aspect of the knight class, I’d declare the whole thing more noble-class hogwash.”

Quirrel barks a short laugh. “The what aspect?”

“Knighthood is arguably the only class in Hallownest that wasn’t locked by your birthright, is it not? One could get in by merit alone.”

Quirrel chitters derisively, but says nothing.

“The entire logic behind knighthood itself declares that if you can prove your worth,” says Lemm, frowning, “then you’ll have a place among the upper echelon of Hallownest.”

“And yet it didn’t happen,” says Quirrel. “Knighthood was restricted by birth in practice, if only because you had to be knighted by someone, and nobody with the ability to knight a bug would give the honor to a no-name commoner from Dirtmouth.”

“I’m sure there were exceptions.”

“Show me one person who was knighted on merit alone,” says Quirrel. "One.”

Lemm throws up his hands grumpily. “Well, I can’t exactly, can I? They’re all dead. You can’t convince me that the societal rules were never broken; rules are made to be broken. Look at you, after all--you’re the one walking around with one of the finest make of nail possible without any idea of the caliber of nail you’ve got.”

Something changes in Quirrel’s posture. “Oh?” he says, with an amused lilt in his voice. “I am?”

Oh, gods and wyrm. Now, Lemm’s never once in his entire long existence been good with people. Some people could even make the claim that he devotes so much of his time and attention to relics and history because he understands those. (Those people would be unspeakably rude and obnoxious.) So Lemm notices a difference in Quirrel, but for the life of him he couldn’t point out what the shift is or why it’s happened.

Okay, well. Maybe if Lemm just ignores it, the problem will go away. That’s how problems work.

“Yes, that nail you’ve got there is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Surely you noticed the engravings on the blade.”

“I’ve no idea what I’ve noticed or not noticed,” says Quirrel. “After all, I’m the one who apparently has no idea what caliber of nail I’ve got.”

Lemm gives Quirrel a strange look, trying to parse what Quirrel just said. Quirrel gives Lemm a bland, amused smile, draws the blade with practiced ease and lays it flat in his hands in offering. “Well? Are you going to tell me about my own nail?”

Ignore the problem and the problem will go away. That’s how problems work.

Lemm takes it by the hilt, feels the firm weight and perfect balance. “Hmm--well, this looks like a pure ore alloy, from the Romantic Era of blacksmithing.”

“Mmhm.”

“So called because each smith had few enough orders of high enough caliber to allow them a true love story with each weapon. Every part crafted to perfection, filigree and etchings of impossible care and detail, blades sharp enough to cut a circle in the very air.”

“Mmhm,” says Quirrel, with that amused, expectant look.

“And then, of course, due to the outrageous care put into each nail, the nobility starting giving them to each other as tokens of affection, to the extent that it ironically became an inter-class scandal to give such a nail to a knight who could actually use the darn thing. If you believe the legends, of course.”

“Fascinating,” says Quirrel. “Tell me more.”

“Well--look here--the nail comes to sharp points at the hilt and crossguard as well as the blade, which is a rather stylish but rare silhouette. Most of the other nails I’ve seen of this type have densely packed lines or abstract pictograms, but here--on yours, the engravings are so fine and thin that the metal looks clean and flat from a distance, which is a curious move I’ve not seen before. And here, it looks like the blade is carved in what was either endless strings of nonsense letters, code, or entirely aesthetic tribute to the idea of language, which is another style I’ve never seen.”

“Hmm,” says Quirrel. The amused look is gone.

“I suppose you got a nail of this quality from a corpse somewhere,” says Lemm.

“I got it from a person who is dead,” says Quirrel, “yes.”

Lemm huffs into his beard. “Wasted on them, surely. Anyone actually worthy of wielding this blade wouldn’t be foolish enough to die with it.”

“Mmmm,” Quirrel says, suddenly fascinated with the patter of rain outside Lemm’s window.

“And I don’t suppose they were kind enough to leave a sturdy journal with the blade’s name inscribed inside?”

Quirrel’s amused smile returns. “Are the dead ever so clairvoyant? I’m sure many a future Relic Seeker will curse all our names for not writing down some small detail we both take for granted.”

Lemm can’t argue with that. (It’s folly to try and predict what future Relic Seekers will need, and even greater folly to try and write everything down. His notes are very thorough, of course, and anyone worth their salt shouldn’t have any trouble with his shorthand.) “Well, did you name it, at least?”

Quirrel shakes his head. “It’s not mine to name.”

Some Relic Seekers are haunted by their trade, Lemm knows. Performing all sorts of rituals to ask permission from the dead, or to ward off ill air. Personally he’s never put much stock in the idea, but there’s no harm in it. Whatever small things help those of weaker constitutions continue their work. In Quirrel, it doesn’t strike Lemm so much as a superstition or a fear, but a sense of respect. Possibly even propriety.

Lemm stares more intently Quirrel’s nail, notices the sheen, the keen edge, the clean hilt wrapping--a picture of diligent maintenance. Lemm’s seen nails much younger than this in much worse shape. "Considering your lifestyle and how little you know about this style of nail, this is very well maintained. In fact, I really must commend you for it.”

"Oh?"

"Yes, you've even been using the correct cleaner formula and everything, which is a very particular quirk that could have severely damaged the quality if you hadn’t. In fact, using the right cleaner is such a particular detail that it would be impossible to come across accidentally unless you… already knew... the details of this nail...”

Lemm trails off abruptly. Squints at the smug bug, who apparently said he knew nothing about high-end priceless antique nails, and yet had been coincidentally doing all the right care and cleaning of his nail--just by chance.

"Yes, Relic Seeker?" says Quirrel pleasantly.

"Do you enjoy making a fool out of me,” says Lemm.

"I’m sure I have no idea what you mean,” says Quirrel, in the same pleasant voice.

Lemm shoves Quirrel’s nail back at him. Quirrel starts laughing, and picks up his nail, slides it back into its hilt, and doesn’t apologize or explain, not even a comment of how Quirrel came to know one of the most obscure facts about Hallownest’s history.

And just like that, Lemm’s reminded that Quirrel’s bag is still firmly packed by the door, ready to leave at any moment, and nothing in this conversation has changed that at all.

Lemm’s shell itches.

The sound of the rain drums on the inside of his head.

When Lemm lived alone, it never mattered when he got this itch. He could do whatever he liked until it went away: Strap into a difficult translation, reshuffle the inventory, count the geo, make tea, go fishing, a multitude of tasks picked up or dropped with only himself as the judge. He could spread half a dozen tablets across his entire apartment and pore over them for hours. He could close the door, listen to the rain, speak to no one for days, weeks, months on end, sink deep into himself until the rain in his head stopped and the itch under his shell faded, isolation and quiet icing out the wire-nerves.

And now Lemm can’t close the door. Or speak to nobody for months. Or disappear into some old tablet.

Because Quirrel. Is in. His house.

“I need some fresh air,” says Lemm suddenly.

“Oh? Are you sure? The--”

“I’m sure,” Lemm snaps.

Quirrel goes silent.

“I’m going for a walk,” says Lemm. “I’ll be back.”

There’s an umbrella by the door, sitting right by Quirrel’s (damnably) packed bag. Lemm doesn’t even touch it as he stalks out and kicks the door shut.

 

*

 

Lemm gets three steps into the rain and immediately regrets everything.

It’s really, truly, infuriatingly hard to pretend you’re angry when you’re standing in the rain, feeling like a drowned belfly. He’s not angry and he knows it. Lemm is just cranky, and mean, and standing outside his own home in the rain and feeling ashamed about going back in for, unfortunately, very good reasons, so he stomps off into the rain into the heart of the city, walking fast to his usual haunt.

This is why he moved to the middle of nowhere. Lemm and other people don’t… get along.

(Lemm doesn’t get along with other people.)

A husk moans nearby, as if in agreement.

Lemm considers shoving it into the canal.

A bug more narratively minded, a bard or scribe who actually writes down all the stories Lemm spends so much time reading, might think something poetic Lemm living in a City of Corpses. They might pen verses about the perpetually weeping cavern ceiling, crying mourning tears over bodies so very dead and yet not allowed to rest. What sort of person, they might write, chooses such a lonely place to live?

“But I’m not lonely,” Lemm announces the instant he reaches his destination, as if picking up a thread of conversation he’d never left. “I’ve never been lonely. To be lonely is to desire companionship. Desiring companionship would require knowing what companionship is in the first place. Therefore: I’m not lonely.”

Lemm looks up at the destination he’s come to visit. The memorial of The Hollow Knight does not respond.

The statue stands as it always does, tall and solemn. It’s very fitting for a memorial, the central subject depicted in flattering preciseness but surrounded by metaphorical abstractions. The vague masks of the Knight’s admirers gaze on in somber awe, highlighting the central figure but never distracting from it.

There’s a distinct creative thumbprint to the work, one Lemm has seen in other statues scattered through the city, but this is by far the sculptor’s masterwork. This occasion, Lemm takes time to note the rivulets in the cloak, guiding the eternal rushing water letting the stone breathe with it. Long-lasting, clever, and mysterious: three of Lemm’s favorite things for a relic to be.

As always, the plaque explains nothing.

MEMORIAL TO THE HOLLOW KNIGHT

In the Black Vault far Above

Through its sacrifice Hallownest lasts Eternal.

He’s long since memorized the text. If pressed, Lemm could write it out from memory. At this point, he reads it only to idly twist and turn the shape of it in his mind like a puzzle box he’s long since resigned himself to never solving.

Was the sacrifice simply death? An especially grisly fate too horrible to put on official record? Lemm didn’t think it particularly likely. As many airs as the Kingdom put on, a strong undercurrent of violence lust ran through many aspects of Court life. A violent death would not be stricken from the record, yet also celebrated, just for that.

Perhaps the sacrifice was mystical, conducted in the Soul Sanctum as part of their so secretive experiments. It’s possible, Lemm hasn’t been able to get his hands on any relics of their mysterious work. But the Soul Sanctum’s reputation was not in good standing, by the end. Many a personal diary idly mentions the rumors of screams.

But then again, Lemm isn’t exactly the most organized of researchers when it comes to texts. He’s better with relics and artifacts. Perhaps Quirrel could assist in--

Lemm stops. Holds the thought at arms length like it had attempted to jump up and eat his face. What nonsense was that? Quirrel was only biding his time in Lemm’s home until his mysterious friend returned and gave him permission to leave.

“It figures, doesn’t it?” Lemm says, with a harsh amusement. “Spend too long with a statue and you suddenly get ideas about wanting bugs to stick around.”

The statue does not reply. Lemm didn’t expect it to. Maybe one day he will and be sorely disappointed when it doesn’t. Maybe one day he will and be pleasantly surprised with it does. (He doubts it. If Lemm had the capacity for any interesting kinds of madness he would have surely developed it by now.)

“Well,” says Lemm, in a huff. “At least you aren’t going anywhere. Whatever mysterious fate fell upon your subject, you will stand here unaffected.”

The sound of rushing water fills Lemm’s silence, like a half-hearted replacement for a conversational partner.

“It was the Soul Sanctum, wasn’t it?” says Lemm darkly. “Some horrible experiment of theirs finally worked, but the makers were too tainted to be properly thanked. I bet your body is up in that tower even as I speak.”

“I don’t think the Soul Sanctum was ever smart enough to accomplish anything.”

Above Lemm’s head appears an umbrella. Not any umbrella--specifically Lemm’s. He recognizes it because he picked it up off a husk and their death grip had bent the handle. To no one’s surprise, when Lemm turns, there stands Quirrel, holding Lemm’s umbrella over Lemm’s head.

“Can hardly work a proper experiment without a proper education, and you can hardly have a proper education without a proper teacher,” says Quirrel. “And the Soul Master was hardly a proper teacher.”

“What are you doing here?” asks Lemm, who has never had a functional filter on his mouth in all his days.

The look Quirrel gives him is genuinely confused. “I think it should be fairly obvious,” Quirrel says. “The husks are very mobile today. It’s not safe to be outside without protection. Besides, you’ll catch your death standing in the rain so long.”

Lemm glances at the nail strapped to Quirrel’s side. Armed with an umbrella and a nail; what a brave protector against the elements and mortality. The umbrella isn’t big enough for two, and Quirrel’s getting soaked. “What does it matter to you?”

Quirrel shrugs. “Protection is why you hired me, isn’t it?”

Oh, Lemm hates it when other people are right.

“You shouldn’t have worried. I’ve got all the protection I need right here," says Lemm sourly.

Quirrel confusion returns with a vengeance until Lemm points at the memorial; and then he smiles a bit, like he thinks Lemm is joking. “The statue?”

“A much more imposing figure than you, that’s for certain. Sit down, you’re making me nervous,” Lemm says; so Quirrel does, and the umbrella still covers Lemm’s head but not Quirrel’s, and Lemm doesn’t quite know how to express why being dry bothers him so much.

For a moment, they just sit there in the rain--well, Quirrel sits in the rain, while Lemm listens to the rain patter across the umbrella overhead. “Put that thing away,” says Lemm. “You look ridiculous.”

“Weren’t you the one complaining about the rain just the other day?”

“You’ll have to be more specific. I’m always complaining about the rain. Put it away ; I’m already soaked anyway.”

So Quirrel puts it away, and Lemm and Quirrel sit together at the base of the statue, with only the empty, stone gaze of the Hollow Knight as shelter. It’s the most company Lemm’s had in one place since he came to Hallownest.

Lemm harrumphs at his own ridiculousness and taps the plaque with a foot. “The husks never come here. Not in all my time in the City have I seen one even get within two hundred paces. That’s why I come here--I haven’t any capacity for defense myself, but this great stone knight makes a good watcher in times like these.”

“What a good knight,” says Quirrel. “Protecting us even when they’re gone.”

Lemm gives him a side-eyed look. “They’re a good neighbor, at any rate. The only problem is, from the looks of this plaque, it seems like something terrible happened to them.”

“Sacrifice doesn’t imply a happy ending, no,” Quirrel agrees.

“Indeed. I'd ask them what happened, but they don't seem the chatty sort, if you know what I mean."

“No records of them?” Quirrel asks. “No rumors?”

“None. Not even a whisper of a footnote.”

“Do you know when the statue was built?” Quirrel says at length.

“Only that it was near the end. Most records that mention the statue are journals written in the initial collapse. I’ve nothing to go on, you see. I can see this mystery knight’s face and I can know their name and title, but I can’t know anything about who they are.”

The staccato noise of the rain on shell and stone fills a few moments of silence. It’s a very nice silence. Quirrel doesn’t think too loudly, but he does think, and it’s a rather pleasant sound.

At length, Lemm sighs. “Perhaps it’s no business of mine, but it seems rather pointless for there to be a memorial in remembrance of a knight that nobody remembers. Not a record, not a text, not a single story to survive.”

“Does there need to be one?” Quirrel asks.

Lemm gives him a look, but Lemm couldn’t say what his own expression is. “You’d think so. Can hardly appreciate what they’ve done if I know nothing about them, can I? And they seemed rather important, didn’t they, to have a statue in the middle of the city?”

“Many things are important that are never remembered.”

“Hmph,” says Lemm, because he’s no fool, and he knows that such is the case. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. If I could just find some text--some archive with a mention of them… Unless there was a cover-up, or some particular reason why they were erased…? Why this knight, put up in the city square and then removed so thoroughly…? It seems deliberate.”

“Your imagination seems to be running away with you,” says Quirrel, somewhat tetchily.

“I’ve only my imagination. This plaque tells me barely anything.”

“It says everything it needs to,” says Quirrel, in that same taut voice. “For any knight, the answer is obvious. They did their duty and fulfilled their role. For a knight to ask for anything more would be unfathomable.”

“Too much to ask for a an obituary, at the very least?”

“Their service is an obituary enough,” says Quirrel. “No, Relic Seeker, I’m afraid the answer was here all along--”

What happens next is, in front of Lemm’s unfortunate eyes, something akin to a glass falling in slow motion: he can see it falling, knows exactly what will happen when it hits the ground, and he feels like he should be able to just snap out of it, reach out, grab the darn thing before it shatters into a thousand messy pieces.

Just behind Quirrel, the short wanderer emerges from the thick rain, coming towards them, their blank stare transfixed on the memorial of The Hollow Knight with an intensity that could give a bug nightmares; and just then, Quirrel says, in a clear, loud, wire-tight voice:

“--the Hollow Knight was erased because they fulfilled their use, and any good knight without a good use has no good reason to live.”

The wanderer stops in their tracks.

In the silence of the pouring rain, Quirrel follows Lemm’s stare over his shoulder. Turns.

The wanderer doesn’t move.

“Oh,” says Quirrel.

Rain streaks down the wanderer’s pale mask into the empty eye sockets. Above them, the Hollow Knight stands immobile, forever glorified in its censored sacrifice, its own eyes blank and fixed on the three standing under its silent watch. (It hits Lemm only then how similar the wanderer and the statue look.)

The wanderer does not move. Quirrel does not move. The Hollow Knight, between them, certainly does not move.

Now, Lemm could not tell you what the hell is going on here, and frankly, he kind of doesn’t want to know. See, things like this? This is a perfect example of why it’s better to move to the middle of a city with half-dead citizens and make your new best friend a forgotten statue with no history. As the silence stretches from mortified to terrified to miserable, Lemm figures: hey, it’s not too late to pack up all his bags and find another half-dead city with with a friendly apocalypse, is it? He can just run off into the wilderness and not have to deal with Quirrel not unpacking his bag or Quirrel not bringing two umbrellas or Quirrel actually being fun and interesting to talk to or Quirrel looking like he wants to dig a hole and bury himself at the foot of The Hollow Knight’s statue. Because, as it turns out, the way to kill a bug isn’t to put a nail in their face, or boil them in infection, or leave them to rot in a locked city, but to just let him put his foot in his mouth in front of his singular friend and leave him to stew.

Lemm looks at Quirrel. Quirrel has now wrapped all the way from mortified to horrified. The wanderer still hasn’t moved.

“Okay, something is going on,” Lemm snaps, “and I do not want to know, but if you’re going to lose your temper, little wanderer, you better do it now, because it’s not happening back at my shop and I haven’t got all day.”

Lemm--!”

The wanderer tilts their head. Their footsteps, as they come forward, are soft on the wet pavement. They hop up on Quirrel’s other side. Quirrel looks at the wanderer like they’re a live snake, but the wanderer only looks up at the Hollow Knight: three of them, tiny and real, and one legacy overhead, larger than life and looming.

The wanderer pats the plaque wetly.

“What,” says Lemm, because Quirrel still seems to be incapable of speech.

The wanderer points to themselves, then puts their hand on the middle word of the plaque.

“Oh, we’re doing charades, now? Invite yourself to our conversation like you own it, and now we all have to play your party game?”

The wanderer looks at Lemm with their big, blank eyes. Puts their hand on the plaque, over the word Hollow.

“What’re you trying to say?” says Lemm grumpily. “You’re hollow?”

The wanderer stills.

Shakes their head slowly.

They try again: the wanderer points to themselves, then covers up the middle word of the plaque entirely, so it reads:

THE ______ KNIGHT

“You are… The Knight?” asks Quirrel.

The wanderer nods.

“Your name?”

The wanderer nods again.

“By god and wyrm, we didn’t even get their name right this whole time,” Lemm grumbles.

He studies the plaque again: THE ______ KNIGHT; as if the Knight were named after the absence at the center of someone else’s grave. Lemm frowns.

“Are you sure you don’t want an adjective with that?” Lemm asks.

The Knight shakes their head.

“Are you very sure? As it stands, it sounds a bit like you’re saying there’s only one knight in the whole world, and it’s you. Rather boastful of you, actually. Most knights had some sort of qualifier by their name.”

The Knight shakes their head again.

“So you insist on inconveniencing us all,” says Lemm without tone. “Are you the one who has to keep track of seven different historical knights at minimum ? No? It’s me. I have to do that. And the only way I can do that is because they’re all called The This-Or-That Knight, or The So-And-So Knight, with a proper adjective in front of their title. And here you are, claiming to be Just The Knight, and making life more difficult for everyone. The Nuisance Knight, is what you are.”

“Please do not call them The Nuisance Knight,” says Quirrel.

“Fine. The Rude Knight.”

“They don’t even talk! They’re hardly rude enough to be named for it.”

“The Annoying Knight,” says Lemm.

“No!”

“Well, what would you suggest?”

“They have the right to name themselves,” Quirrel insists. Pauses. "...Besides. The best adjective would obviously be The Wandering Knight."

The Knight stares at him.

"If there had to be one! Which there doesn't!" Quirrel says hastily.

The Knight looks back up at the Hollow Knight. Slowly, the silence returns.

“So are you going to lose your temper or what, Troublesome Knight,” says Lemm.

“Lemm!”

“Because the sound of Quirrel’s mortification right now--”

Relic Seeker--”

“--could be heard from Mantis Village.”

The Knight shakes their head.

“Great,” says Lemm. “I’m glad we’ve got that squared away. Did you hear that, Quirrel?”

“I don’t think it works that way,” says Quirrel.

“If they say it does, then it does,” says Lemm. “It’s only you who won’t let yourself off the hook.”

“But--”

“No. Stop. Stop having problems for two seconds.”

Quirrel gives Lemm a flat look.

“I didn’t say forever! I said two seconds!”

Quirrel, at length, gives Lemm only a disparaging look. “I did not… mean what I said,” says Quirrel to the Knight, after a moment, who only looks at Quirrel without expression. “About the Hollow Knight. It... wasn’t what you think.”

Carefully, Quirrel’s hand moves over the handle of his nail. Not a threat, only an unconscious movement.

The Knight considers him.

At length, nods.

The silence resumes.

“Great. Now we have one umbrella for three people,” says Lemm. “And we’re all soaking wet, sitting in the rain. Three idiots in a row. Couldn’t have had a conversation somewhere dryer, could we? We had to have a nice, peaceful, friendly moment of relaxing out in the pouring, freezing rain.”

“Is two seconds over yet,” says Quirrel.

No.”

Quietly, the Knight sneezes.

Quirrel laughs almost instantly, like the sound made a daring escape before his brain could say anything about it. “Oh, alright,” says Lemm. “I’m calling it a day. We’re going back inside. I hope you came here with something good to sell, because my shop isn’t a rest stop.”

The Knight rummages around in their cloak, and then pulls out a wrought iron piece: not the same one they bought the last time they’d come to the shop, but a different one, obviously of the same make and model of the original.

“Oh good gods,” says Lemm. “You actually found more pieces. You couldn’t have led with that, could you?”

The Knight shakes their head.

“You’re a menace. Fine! Get up, get up, I’ll buy your strange iron garbage. Go on, then.”

The Knight hops off the stone ledge and waits for Quirrel to follow. Lemm snatches up the umbrella Quirrel left behind. The awful rain falls steadily over the three of them, but even as he turns to go, Lemm hesitates, and takes one last look back at the Hollow Knight’s statue, as if to say goodbye. In the corner of his eye, he catches the Knight doing the same.

Chapter Text

Uumuu smacks Quirrel with a tentacle.

“Come, now,” Quirrel says, with stern annoyance to cover his amusement. “As if you’ve never had a tune-up before.”

Uuumuu doesn’t find Quirrel especially convincing at the best of times, and right now he’s threading complicated machinery into Uumuu’s tendrils, which Uumuu has always been squirmish about. Still, the tentacles are the one of the better connections to Uumuu’s core Quirrel has access to, and it’s always better safe than sorry. Even if Uumuu is, for all intents and purposes, a completed project. Quirrel is… being thorough.

As the meter lights up, the metal walls and floors shine bright in the acid’s slight glow, and the glass tubes light the rest of the way. Quirrel can’t help but appreciate the ingenuity of the Archive, even after so long working within its walls. He hopes he never forgets to appreciate this house of learning.

When Uumuu sinks into its habitat to maintain its weight through the diagnostic, Uumuu holds as still as it can, so as not to fleck Quirrel with acid by accident. Quirrel pats the upper membrane and Uumuu burbles at the touch, still annoyed, sighing with a spray of electric static. Quirrel pays it no mind. Uumuu is as careful with its sparks as the acid, and Uumuu wouldn’t hurt a lumafly. (Almost to the point of being a problem. But Quirrel keeps that thought to himself, because self-defense is not the concern of a pen-pushing archivist.)

“Open up,” says Quirrel, which Uumuu, of course, doesn’t understand, because Uumuu doesn’t understand language. Uumuu gets the message when Quirrel pulls out the scalpel, and then (literally) rolls over, the great big pushover.

The collected mass of cores at Uumu’s center glow a pale green, a lovely compliment to Uumuu’s translucent body, shining bright with the knowledge contained within. The metal probe slides between them softly, careful not to puncture. Somewhere in those cores, Quirrel knows, is every single thing the Archive had ever stored, preserved far more effectively than paper scrolls or stone tablets (and in turn, the Archive a preservation of everything the Madam had ever learned). An Archive that could self-preserve, heal, and (if Uumuu could grow a metaphorical backbone) defend against those that would harm it or its home.

Which is, perhaps, a lot to ask of any creature. Some days, Quirrel regrets creating Uumuu. It was a disservice have created any creature only to serve as a pale reflection of some higher being’s life’s work.

On the other days, Quirrel regrets only that he wasn’t able to make Uumuu fulfill its purpose as well as he’d planned.

At last, Quirrel makes contact with the nervous system, and the little glass tube lights up with readouts. Quirrel watches as they scroll by, all well within optimal parameters. Electroplaxes normal, lappets normal, ocelli performing above expectations. As for the core--Archive preservation at hundred parts per hundred. Diagnostic complete.

Quirrel sighs and sets about the careful task of removing the small probe from Uuumuu’s brainspace. “I’ve made you too well,” he admonishes Uumuu. “You hardly provide me distraction anymore.”

Uumuu, of course, can’t understand what Quirrel was saying. Despite containing the entire Archive, Uumuu can’t read or interact with the records. (It simply hadn’t occurred to Quirrel when he’d drawn the blueprints.) Indeed, Uumuu is much more intelligent than most of its brethren, by simple virtue of size, and with intelligence came a personality only as a happy, unfortunate consequence. If only because the personality had been so unexpected, Quirrel enjoys Uumuu’s company for sure, and looks forward to their time together. But now, when Quirrel needs it most, he’s rudely reminded that he never made Uumuu to be a companion.

Uumuu was created to do two things: To preserve, and to guard.

“Well, you’ll never forget, even if I do,” says Quirrel, and smooths the membrane back down. Electricity sparks and Uumuu sinks into the acid to wet the skin, to better let the membrane knit back together. As it is, Quirrel pulls out a strip of spare membrane to apply to the seam, which is nearly instantly absorbed into Uumuu’s greater body mass. Uumuu pops back up, dripping acid, but doesn’t dare shake itself off with Quirrel so close by.

“I won’t let my focus wander again,” Quirrel says to to Uumuu, packing up his diagnostic tools. “Nothing so dangerous nowadays as to let the focus wander…”

Uumuu begins to drift off, literally, floating up into the high arched ceilings, like an untethered cloud raining acid. Quirrel starts to laugh.

“Of course my wandering focus pales in comparison to you, Uumuu!” Quirrel calls after it. The giant, graceful jellyfish doesn’t respond, peering in on the far corners of its home, mimicking the motion of reading them that it’s seen Quirrel and Monomon do so often. It carefully wanders the halls of the Archives, familiarizing itself with the layout. The guard patrol routes--the ones Quirrel made first as a foundational intelligence upon which all the rest of Uumuu’s knowledge rests, so that Uumuu might never forget it, even if there’s nobody left to remind it.

Quirrel’s smile slips off his face.

But he pops back up almost immediately into a bustle, adjusts his little cloth hat, and makes to put the diagnostic tools away. All the way in the far supply closet, of course, only sensible that they be thoroughly packed away because--the Archive needed to be organized and spotless for the upcoming events. That’s all.

Okay, he’s done Uumuu’s monthly check-up, and then did it again two weeks before it was due. He’s cleaned the main floor. Uh, he reorganized his desk already. He could reorganize someone else’s desk? He could pick up the Fog Canyon map project again--no, he’d need a toolbag from Monomon’s room for that--not that that’s a bad thing, but, ah, there’s certainly something around here that he could do that coincidentally might require him to not have to go there--he could check the acidity of the water again? For the third time? If he pesters Uumuu again for another “check-up,” Uumuu will really be cross with him...

A soft chime rings. Quirrel listens, and lets it fade. The sound of acid lapping against the walkways echoes in the halls.

The chime rings again.

Nobody responds. Quirrel didn’t know why he was waiting for someone to respond. Just goes to show how much grunt work he’d gotten into the terrible habit of shoving off on his TA.

Well, Quirrel was looking for something to do, anyway; he quickly puts the diagnostic tools away in their little box on the workbench and makes his way to the mailroom. It hits him halfway there that if he missed them, he’ll have no way of getting an invoice from them--and the budget records are part of his responsibilities, now, too, aren’t they?

He takes a shortcut through the faculty offices. Standing solemn watch over the silent spaces are long metal desks, all cleaned out, several dusty. Further down are the classrooms, locked behind glass. The Lumafly lanterns hang empty on their stands, occupants moved or sold off as needed. Mostly sold off. (Quirrel had to do those budget records, too.)

“Hello?” Quirrel calls as he nears the mailroom. “Are you still there? The Oomas can’t sign for the package, but I--”

And Quirrel opens the door just in time for an Uoma to run directly into his face.

Of course, the startled dear spits out a surprised shock and nearly bounces into a metal lamppost. “Ah!” Quirrel says, snatching the Uoma away. “Careful! What would Madam think of you about rushing around like that?”

The Uoma shrinks back, and Quirrel regrets scolding it immediately.

“Forgive me for my tone,” he says. ”But what have we said about rushing in the hallways?”

He holds out a conciliatory finger. The Uoma wraps a tendril around it and buzzes happily.

“Safety first,” he agrees. “Especially as the stress of the times wears on us all.”

An Ooma, tendrils full of poorly-organized letters, buzzes to get Quirrel’s attention. It points one of its very strained arms towards the large pile of mail by the door. Oomas and Uomas all hover over the pile, picking up what pieces they can and carrying them off, dropping letters through their slippery, clumsy tendrils. To where, Quirrel isn’t quite sure, but he’s also not sure the Uomas or Oomas know either. The cubbies that used to sort mail by departments are all empty, and none of the jellyfish seem to even be attempting to categorize the mass of messages, only trying to clear the debris.

Actually, he’s pretty sure the Oomas don’t know how to read.

Just as well. Letters are all the same these days, anyway. Quirrel thinks fondly of the time he could expect a variety: grant requests, solicitations, know-it-all job applicants; thank-you letters, grateful older students, pictures, success stories, pleas for help, more brochures for City of Tears attractions than Quirrel could ever know what to do with. Quirrel always had his TA pick through the influx for the snottiest, most arrogant cover letters for his and Monomon’s amusement.

Now they only get mail of a single type, reeking of panic and desperation. Even the Uomas sense it. They never touch the letters. Only the Oomas are brave enough.

It’s watching them work that leads Quirrel to see what they summoned him here for. On top of the mail pile is a long package, thin around and nearly the length of Quirrel himself. Certainly too heavy for an Ooma to carry safely.

To Monomon the Teacher, says the label. For Her eyes only.

The label marks it as a delivery of the highest priority. It’s not the common seal, or the Hallownest seal, but a seal in the visage of the Pale King--a seal in fine filigree that Quirrel’s never even see before, not even during his days in the guard.

Quirrel stares at the label for a long moment. Looks back up at the Ooma.

The Ooma holds out two tendrils, imitating, without shoulders, the many times it’s seen Quirrel shrug.

Quirrel sighs.

 

*

 

Some people have a strict divide between work, play, office, home, coworker, and family. Those people, when they come--came to the Archive, always had the most difficult adjustment. Monomon has no concept of such boundaries.

She enjoyed sleeping where she works, which is the deep, acidic pools in the Archive’s floor; she says that it’s good for the mind, to rest amongst her work, side by side, to dream of the joy of her research, and to rise bright and early to begin again with her Archive tubes within her reach. She floated, often, through entire pools full of numbers and words, knowledge scattered in the air and in the water, and let the knowledge she had amassed drift through her membrane, soaking in the pools that she had personally amassed of Hallownest’s deepest knowledge, constructing newer knowledge within her body and bed; in the depths of those pools swam the phytoplankton that she fed upon, and she grew strong and long day after day as she fed upon knowledge and creatures alike; every so often, when she grew tired of the mulch of phytoplankton and the texts did not float easily through her porous membranes, she would call for an Uoma, and she’d raise her head from her acid pools and Quirrel would sit along the poolside and they’d talk through the problem together as she chewed steadily through the Uoma’s delicate, tender core, savoring the little knowledge and mind she’d granted to it as she reabsorbed it into her being, savoring the company of Quirrel’s meager academic talent; and she, of course, slept in those pools, too, dreaming of when she could begin to work again in the light of the next morning, her head sometimes laid softly on the edge of the pool until Quirrel came to submerge her back into the acid, lest she dry out. When she was done with a project, she’d call for Quirrel, and they’d bottle up the bit of knowledge in its acidic form in a tube-tank together, and then she would request fresh acid, or maybe an old, pre-bottled project she’d shelved a while ago, and Quirrel would add the new acid to her pool and new phytoplankton to go with it, and she’d begin again.

It sounds, perhaps, overwhelming to live your work, but Monomon works the way she lives: deliberately, steadfastly, contemplatively, patiently, and with unfailing dedication to a vision of the world only she can see, and all else are only privileged to glimpse through her teachings. Monomon’s chambers used to be an oasis in the midst of the constantly bustling Archives, as professors (who didn’t know how to pace themselves or their work) rushed from class to class, and students forgot deadlines and limped through haphazard essays. In the chambers of Monomon’s office, bedroom, and home, the high arched ceilings gently soothed any noise with their sheer volume of calm air, until it became not distraction but a pleasant ambiance. There, the Teacher would float among her displays and texts, deep in contemplation, almost ethereal in the light of the acid tanks; she did her best work here, in the center of the Archives, the eye of a storm of ever expanding academic excitement that remained, for all its vast and multiple moving parts, a storm of her making, a storm of her nature.

When Quirrel opens her door, a sawblade screams through metal.

A tiny craftsman is hammering joints into place, clanging them together with swings. The clanging is all out of sync, without rhyme or rhythm. The smell of metal being soldered pervades the room, the scent of burning, sinking deep into the porous acid where Monomon stored her best thoughts. Half a dozen small craftsmen from the City of Tears scurry across the floors, tripping over mislaid tools. They look at the deep pools of acid with the sort of trepidation that comes from not knowing.

Monomon still floats in the midst of it all. She gives firm direction and corrections as required, as she always has, as if the construction crew is only another class on her schedule. Quirrel sees her indicating a vital support structure, perhaps informing the architect of another exacting specification she needed, or (more likely) explaining why she needed it.

“Madam,” Quirrel says by way of greeting. He bows, of course, the long package tucked neatly behind him.

“Scholar,” Monomon replies. “Just a moment.” She turns her attention back the architect and says, “The joints simply will not hold. Please inform the metallurgist that my request was not optional.”

The architect bows (much lower than Quirrel did), but does not move. “The metallurgist maintains that the blueprints are unsustainable…”

“The blueprints that I have drawn?”

“She has held firm to her belief…”

Monomon goes perfectly straight with the poise that Quirrel knows to be her exhaustion. “Tell her to examine the samples again,” she says, pulling a long sheet of silk paper from a nearby desk. “There is no mistake.”

“Yes, yes, very good, Madam,” says the architect hastily, takes the paper, and hands it to Quirrel. “Here, mailboy. Take this to the metallurgist. She’s the one with the highest social mark on her shell in blue.”

Quirrel looks down at the scroll.

“Well?” says the builder, in a brusque tone of voice that would be rude, if it weren’t for the fact that his social class, branded on his shell, was obviously and clearly several ranks higher than Quirrel’s. As the silence stretches longer, the builder frowns. “Oh, sorry--are you a cleaning bug?”

“Yes, Quirrel,” says Monomon. “Indeed, please do take it; I’ve only recently gotten into matters of geology and metalworking myself, and I believe that with your… how many years of service to me as Head Administrator of these archives?”

“Twenty-two this past year, Madam,” says Quirrel.

The architect blanches.

“And Department Head before that for a decade, were you not?”

“Indeed, Madam.”

“Yes, I believe you may know something more than myself on subjects of metalwork,” says Monomon. “Either way, I’m sure that a mind of your caliber will take great pleasure in a bit of light reading such as this.”

Quirrel undoes the scroll, covered in nearly incomprehensible shorthand, dense mathematical equations stretching side to side, and various, esoteric jargon as long as his fingers. “Compelling work as always, Madam,” says Quirrel. “I shall take a peek the next time I’d like to unwind over something simple.”

“I… deeply apologize,” says the architect, who looks less so much wrongfooted as he does like his entire worldview has been upended. The apology is rather unelaborated upon, considering how sorry he claims to be. “Regardless…” He looks at Quirrel--then Monomon--in a new light--a light that Quirrel knows very well, which is that someone has lowered Monomon several points of estimation for keeping such a common bug in her employ. “Regardless, the hatch function does not need to be opened. The metallurgist maintains this point, as do I. There is simply no need for an opening for a tube that will never be reopened.”

Monomon looks down at Quirrel. Quirrel looks up at Monomon.

“But my dear bug,” says Monomon, in the tone of voice that is in no way different from her usual soft tones, but nevertheless tells Quirrel precisely what the next play that will come out of her mouth is: “if the hatch is never to be reopened, how will I feed?”

“...Feed, Madam? No, no,” says the architect, with a short laugh, “I believe you misunderstand the purpose of the seals--”

“I understand them perfectly,” says Monomon. “I helped design them. I understand that my body will be sustained through the seal in a stasis. I did not ask about feed for subsistence.”

And then she stops there, gentle and sweet as ever.

“...What does, er,” says the architect, who is beginning to visibly sweat. “...does that mean…?”

“I am so glad you’ve asked,” says Monomon. “I do believe strongly in a hands-on, demonstrative approach to learning, and it seems that today, you are so lucky as to learn something new. Quirrel, my dearest student. I believe I have no choice. Please bring me the spoon.”

Quirrel freezes. “Madam,” he says softly. “Not the spoon.”

The builder hesitates. “What spoon…?”

Monomon bows her head. “Quirrel. I trust nobody else with this task but you. This demonstration will be short.”

“What spoon,” says the builder nervously.

“Madam, with all due respect, it doesn’t have to come to this,” says Quirrel.

“Does it not?” Monomon asks, which is precisely the sort of nonsense question that Monomon usually despises, for it allows the listener to read whatever they like into it. From the whites of the architect’s eyes, the architect is reading Fear.

Primly, Monomon clasps her tendrils together. “I leave my will to you, my dear student,” she says solemnly, and drifts away, off to examine some other aspect of the construction process.

What. Spoon,” the architect hisses.

Quirrel drags the architect by the arm, far out of Monomon’s earshot, and draws the poor architect near to him as the picture of urgency. “Listen closely,” says Quirrel. “I do this out of the goodness of my heart.”

The architect nods frantically.

“You must do exactly as I say, if you want to survive.”

The architect looks a bit like he’s about to pass out.

“I need you to turn around, and walk away slowly,” says Quirrel. “Get the metallurgist. Tell the metallurgist what I’ve told you: that the joints of the tank’s lid must be built with the hatch along the top.”

“But…”

“My good bug! Don’t make me go through with this,” Quirrel pleads. “The last time we brought out the spoon…”

Quirrel trails off, too overwhelmed with sorrow to speak further.

The builder might actually be hyperventilating.

“Go,” Quirrel says. “Quickly. Do not look back.”

“Thank you,” says the architect fervently. “I shall never, ever forget your kindness, so long as I live.”

Quirrel nods with gravitas. “Worry not. I shall handle the Teacher’s will.”

The architect hurries off to the rest of the construction crew, presumably to locate the metallurgist so fix the hatch joints. Now even the bigger bugs of the crew look at Monomon in fear as she pulls herself to her full height, and gestures for Quirrel to follow. Looks of admiration that he dare stand in the presence of Monomon and Her Spoon follow Quirrel as he steps in line after her.

They walk in silence around the corner, into the hallways.

“My dear student,” says Monomon.

“Yes, Madam?” says Quirrel dutifully.

“It’s just occurred to me,” she says. “Do we actually own a single spoon in this building?”

Quirrel’s face definitely remains straight. “No, Madam.”

“No? What of the kitchen?”

“The kitchen was cleared out, Madam.”

“Not even utensils for your own meals?”

“I possess a fork and knife, Madam.”

“A cooking spoon?”

“Now the Madam jests at my expense.”

“Hm,” says Monomon. “Then perhaps we should invest in another code-word to intimidate the undergraduates, and other presumptuous metropolitans who’d judge the worth of a bug by the marks of his shell.”

“Perhaps, Madam.”

 

*

 

Beyond the main floor of the construction is a deeper, quieter chamber. Inside, tubes of knowledge, encoded into the acidic water itself, drifts gently, casting their reflection upon the floor. Monomon drifts closer to the floor, and her tendrils coil and uncoil along the metal, following her like the probing vines of Greenpath. Quirrel tells her that this is unnecessary. Monomon maintains Quirrel would break his poor neck holding polite eye contact. Quirrel returns that his neck is hardly a concern, and that the floor here is filthy.

Monomon raises a tentacle to her face in mock shock. “Quirrel! Surely you aren’t calling your Teacher filthy.”

“I might be forced to, if she keeps letting her tendrils lay on the floor of a construction site.”

“Now my chambers are a construction site. You’re developing quite a nasty tongue, my student.”

Quirrel’s chest fills with a warm pride, as it always does when Monomon calls him hers . Still: “Madam, please, I worked very hard to earn the title of Archivist.’

She waves a firm dismissal. “And I’ve thought for years that title was antiquated. Entirely the wrong connotations for your field.”

“My field of being the administrator of the Archive?”

“Your field of study,” Monomon insists, “as a historian. Simply because you work in an archive does not mean you must refer to yourself as an archiver. To archive is to lock knowledge in place, carve it in stone, to preserve. Important work--vital work--but in isolation it leads to nothing--stasis, perhaps, and without change there may be no life. History is only important because it--

“--is so closely tied to the present,” Quirrel finishes.

“Smugness does not become you, my student.”

“I know not of what smugness you speak. I’ve only been taught well by an excellent teacher as to the value of having multiple dictionaries on my person at all times from which to draw one’s argument over the definition of a word--and, perhaps, I may have been taught that a bug cannot be summed up in a word, amd that a title is not a total encapsulation of a bug’s work.”

“On this, we more than disagree,” Monomon says, with fondness. “Call a bug a name enough, and eventually, he will respond to it.”

“Lecture a student enough, and eventually he will have the lecture memorized.”

“And I will stop saying so when my student learns. I am still your teacher yet, and one day I shall enact the proper procedures to change that name.”

“Of course, Madam.”

“Mark my words, my student; it will be done.”

“Shall I mark it along with all the previous times you have told me to mark your words?”

Monomon burbles a small giggle before she can help it. “Your assistance in such would be invaluable. We wouldn’t want them to become disorganized.”

Quirrel takes great satisfaction in hearing Monomon laugh; but then Monomon turns, and behind her, at the center of her chambers, stands a single tank, still half-constructed and without a hatch along the top, oppressively more vast than its peers. And it seems to Quirrel that it is this tank that has stolen the peace and quiet from the Archive: rather than the serenity Monomon usually carries with her as the center of the Archive, it’s this... metal tube that has displaced her and made itself the center of their lives.

As Quirrel looks up, Monomon is perfectly framed within the tank’s borders. Perfectly sized to fit her comfortably.

The perfect size to archive a dreamer in her entirety.

“Mail in this day and age,” Monomon says, and holds out a tendril. “I suppose that was the reason for the chime, and the reason you’ve deigned to speak with me again.”

Whatever do you mean, Quirrel could say, and keep up the faux-politeness game, but he can’t do it. She is right. She is his teacher still. Instead, he says, “I am deeply surprised you could hear the chime at all in this din,” and holds out the long package, facing her, and she leans in close to read it.

She does not take it. She doesn’t even touch it. The constant casual motion of her body stops completely.

“Thank you, Archivist,” she says, with sudden formality. Quirrel feels a pit of dread form in his stomach, and the shallow veneer of normalcy they had been skating on falls apart like so much brittle ice.

She looks up at him. “You are familiar with the plan.”

Quirrel nods. “I am, madam.”

“When the Pale King approached me, I knew it was my solemn duty to protect the vast wonders of Hallownest. I volunteered for the plan with pride. I know that my sacrifice would ensure the place of Hallownest in history.”

Quirrel doesn’t speak. For a moment, neither does Monomon.

“And the flaw,” she says, in a low voice.

The flaw they’d discovered deep within the last records of the forgotten moth tribe. The single flaw that could kill a Dreamer regardless of whatever seals the Weavers wove.

“Do I still have your service in this?” Monomon says quietly.

The last Quirrel checked, they’d only discovered a flaw--not a way to way to circumvent it. She’d spoken of the idea that her mask should be removed from Hallownest altogether, ensuring that not even the most obscure of moth lore could be used to breach her mind. In essence, shutting the door and throwing away the key. Quirrel has no idea what on earth she might require of him to make this reality.

“Always, Madam. For anything,” says Quirrel, without hesitation, and means it.

Her tendrils curl in upon themselves on the floor, and distantly, Quirrel realizes he’s seeing his teacher’s nervous tick for the first time, on the eve of her death, in front of the tank that will be her grave. Her tendrils clench, then uncurl, then she begins to pull the ribbons from the box even while Quirrel holds it in his arms. “It remains between us,” she says, referring to their resolve to keep the knowledge from the Pale King. “But the rumors are true. The dead walk under the infection’s influence. If we are to do this, my dear student, we cannot go unprepared.”

Her voice drops to nearly nothing as the filigree lace falls from the box lid, and she says: “I made a request of the Pale King.”

Quirrel chokes.

“You made a what? Of the--!”

“I had to.”

Madam,” Quirrel hisses, glancing over his shoulder at the empty hallway. “Is that--wise? To--to twist the arm of the Pale Wyrm?” He looks at her with disbelief--never mind if it was wise, did the Monomon he know even think to make demands of her king? Gods forbid, was this a sign of infection?

“He is not so immovable,” Monomon replies, with the same silky, serene tone of voice that declares the argument over before it’s begun. “He sees good reason if good reason is given to Him.”

“What on earth could possibly be worth…?”

And Monomon lifts the lid from the box without flourish, no ceremony, and there, in Quirrel’s arms, is a nail.

It is a nail. It’s more than a nail; it’s not a nail whatsoever; Quirrel thinks this might be what love at first sight looks like. It shines brighter than any nail Quirrel has seen before, on even the highest-born nobles in the most reputable and wealthy courts. Quirrel is no Soul Master, no Shaman, but even he can sense the pale ore singing in its blade, humming on the same frequency as the Weaver’s most potent spells.

Quirrel doesn’t want to know what this costs. He doesn’t even want to know how it was made or who made it, or what Monomon asked of the Pale King that the Wyrm would bestow such a creation upon her. Actually, he doesn’t even want to be holding it, as if he might break it, or somehow make it lesser simply by touching it.

“Madam, this is…”

Monomon inclines her head.

“...not going to protect you from a Dream Nail,” says Quirrel. He frowns at the nail. “Unless there’s a spell upon this that I don’t know of… Madam, if you desire to take a weapon with you to your eternal sleep, I shall not stop you, but this is a heavy burden to carry…”

Monomon covers the lower part of her mask with a tentacle. Her voice is amused, now: “Quirrel…”

“...and, pardon me for saying so, I wasn’t aware that you knew how to use a weapon. As it stands, I’m not sure that your tendrils have the muscle mass required to lift such a...”

“Quirrel,” says Monomon. “This nail is your nail.”

“It certainly isn’t,” says Quirrel promptly, and without pausing for breath: “Madam, this is hardly a joke with a punchline, and if there is one, I’d be interested to hear it soon. We both know such a nail is not for the likes of me, a common bug of no high birth nor economic means nor knighthood.”

“The times have changed.”

Quirrel waves a hand, setting the box on a nearby desk, as if putting distance between him and the weapon might make it go away. “But such a custom could never, Madam; the worth of this nail is unfathomable; even the make of this box is worth more than my entire being. To grant it to one such as I would be unthinkable for the King--no, Madam, regardless of what you may have told His Majesty, I can’t imagine that He’d break every ceremony, every tradition, every scrap of decorum surrounding the highest of high privileges to carry such a nail, and grant one to a common bug who left the royal guard so many decades ago--”

“And He did not agree at first, no,” Monomon interrupts. “But Herrah had her price. This was mine.”

Quirrel falls silent.

Monomon waits patiently, as if in a seminar of quiet freshmen, for Quirrel to speak.

He does not.

“There is no solution but the one we discussed,” says Monomon softly. “My mask must be taken far beyond the grounds of Hallownest and the Old Light’s reach. The Dreamer seals will not be enough. This--my mask, my face, my mind--I have only ever had my own mind at my disposal, and I gamble with it now. I must recraft my own mind to become the last and most devious lock on the cage that will hold the Infection until the end of time. And you--you will be the Old Light’s most important jailer.”

“I--” Quirrel swallows thickly. “I... couldn’t. I’m not--”

“There is no being in all the world I would trust more to carry my most precious consciousness. I have seen you with a nail. Though your days of common guard duty are behind you, you still carry your skills and reflexes from times long gone.”

Those mornings, practicing basic forms and exercises in the courtyard, using the bubbles as simple targets… he’d thought he’d been clever, keeping them in the early hours. He hadn’t even known she knew about it. It always felt so unbecoming to Quirrel, an aspect of his old life he couldn’t properly leave behind, as if no matter how hard he worked for the title of Archivist and no matter how long he lived in the Archive, he would always be back at boot camp, picking up a nail for the first time, terrified at how right it felt in his hand, terrified at who he might become if he stayed.

“With this nail, with my mask,” says Monomon, “you will go out into the Wastes beyond. There, the Infection will never be able to reach you.”

The nail sings to Quirrel, even out of his hands and still in its box. The tank is full up of empty acid, bathing Monomon in pale light. He remembers, distantly, that he’d meant to ask Monomon which texts she wanted the tank to be filled with, so that she might have literature to read in the swirling acid of her last sleep. She’d lived so vibrantly, full of love and words. The thought that she might go into that last dark alone, frozen through with cold and empty water, without even the mind she’d treasured so dearly to keep her company...

“My dear student,” says Monomon. “Say something.”

“Your intellectual work remains inspiring,” Quirrel’s mouth says. “Truly you are a visionary amongst us.”

“My dear,” says Monomon, quieter. “Please.”

“Madam,” says Quirrel, and nothing else. She waits. Again, nothing.

“Know, my dear student, archivist, and scholar. I do not ask this lightly.”

“I know,” Quirrel replies.

“You understand as well as I the consequences of wandering.”

“I know.”

“The Infection spreads,” she murmurs. “The dead cannot be trusted. The City of Tears has taken to burning their corpses. If you were to fall with my mask in your possession, the keystone of this plan would collapse. The Old Light would use your hands to undo your hard work, if you were to pass away. And as Her influence spreads, we cannot guarantee that the Wastes beyond will remain free of her reach. Even as you go beyond these lands, you must stay alive. You must defend yourself.”

Monomon lifts the nail from the box with two tendrils; with a third, she lifts his chin. He didn’t realize he’d been staring at the floor. “Your role in the plan is keystone, lynchpin, the small, humble piece that holds it all aloft. Your purpose is noble. Your sacrifice glorious. Archivist Quirrel, Hallownest will honor you.”

I don’t care, Quirrel thinks, like an angry child, like a traitor, like an ungrateful louse, I want no part in this thing that will rob me of you. I do not care. I would rather die than be your murderer.

She holds out the nail to him.

Quirrel, for just a fraction of a moment, considers refusing. Like some spoiled noble’s son refusing a gift they did not desire. How dare he? How dare he even entertain the idea of turning down the final request of the woman who has given him everything?

Maybe she knows, in that moment, that he has hesitated for the first time since coming into her service. Maybe this is why she says, in that damnably gentle voice: “The price I asked of the Pale King was a nail, not for status, not for glory, not for any pride of craftsmanship. I asked for a nail that would never fail you, never rot, never age, never bend nor break. I ask that this nail may serve you well, as you have served me, so that this nail may keep you safe. I ask of you to live.”

The dull, howling winds of the lands beyond, stripping his mind down to smooth, featureless nothing. The burden of a weapon forever on his hip, a weight he thought left behind him. The loss of his truest friend and confidant, not even to death, but eternal sleep.

She reaches for him. A gentle touch to his cheek.

“You must live, Quirrel.”

And at long last, Quirrel takes the nail.

For the sake of the plan, Quirrel will live.

For Monomon’s sake, Quirrel will live.

(What a fine punishment, Madam, for your jailer.)

He kneels, on one knee, the way he was taught all those years ago. The tip of the nail points down, standing at attention, in his hands but in Her name. The only proper stance for a knight accepting such an important task from their lord. Deeply, he bows his head. His last thought before his eyes turn downward is that Monomon looks unspeakably sad for someone who has, to the best of Quirrel’s knowledge, gotten everything she wanted.

A small pool of acid burns Quirrel’s leg. He ignores it.

 

*

 

“--ocus up. You can’t stand there all day.”

Quirrel blinks, shakes his head slightly.

“It’s your turn to cook dinner. Do I look like I run an inn?”

Quirrel tilts his head.

Before him stands Lemm, looking vaguely cross. Beyond him is the door to a shop--Lemm’s shop--some twenty paces away. The rain patters distantly.

That’s right, Quirrel thinks. I’m in the City of Tears, staying with Relic Seeker Lemm.

“Apologizes, I hadn’t forgotten,” Quirrel says. “I was simply… lost in thought.”

Lemm somehow manages to frown more, which is an impressive feat for his general demeanor. “Very lost indeed. I’ve been calling you for nigh on an age.”

An exaggeration, Quirrel tells himself.

“Coming, coming,” says Quirrel, and draws the point of his nail from where he’d wedged it into the rotted carpet. “Did you have something in mind?”

“Surprise me, if you somehow can with the contents of my own pantry.”

“I must admit, I am not much of a cook.”

Lemm’s brow furrows. “You’re not?”

“Is that somehow surprising?”

Lemm scritches at his own beard thoughtfully. “You seem like the type to cook.’

“The ‘type’?”

“Yes, very--” Lemm waves a vague hand. “Domestic.”

Quirrel is so startled that he laughs. “I don’t believe I’ve ever been called domestic in all my days.”

“Next you’ll tell me that you don’t talk to yourself, even though I’ve seen you doing it with my own two eyes,” mutters Lemm, and stomps off.

That’s odd, Quirrel thinks, because Quirrel doesn’t, actually, talk to himself, and doesn’t know when Lemm would have ever thought he was; but this seems unimportant in the scheme of things, since Quirrel’s about to have to teach himself to cook. And then as he turns to go, he marvels at the Lumaflies in the hallway lamps lighting the way with the same idle offhandedness, and thinks with the same passing idleness: I wonder what Lemm is feeding them, to make them so orange and so bright?

Chapter Text

With a long stick, Lemm eases the fresh moss into the lumafly lamp and pokes the cage shut. The lumaflies glow a happy white-pale as they descend on their feed. Hungry little critters, Lemm figures, even if at the same time he wonders at how hardy they must be. If every lumafly lamp he didn’t feed went out, the whole City of Tears would be in darkness.

Stubborn little creatures, then. That, if nothing else, deserves a treat now and then.

‘Now and then,’ of course, being a game of estimation, anyway, in the sunless, dayless kingdom of Hallownest. Lemm tries not to count the days since he’s seen the Knight last. Instead, he measures his time by Quirrel: How many times Quirrel stands outside the door for hours, or how many times Quirrel looks out the window for ages on end, or how many times Quirrel will pace a rut in the carpet like a caged beast. Every two times he stands outside the door, he might look out the window like a lovelorn boyfriend. Every six times he stares out the window, Lemm will know he’s due for a pacing. Every time Quirrel starts pacing, Lemm figures it’s time to feed the lumaflies.

The hallway is always brighter after Lemm feeds them, so even if they don’t especially need the food, they clearly appreciate it. Lemm takes a moment to admire his work, the drab hallway outside his shop made almost cheerful by the fluttering lights.

There’s a thud! from inside the shop.

A thud is not a noise that inspires automatic panic like a crash or a shatter would, Lemm reflects. Indeed, he only stepped out for just a moment.

The likelihood that anything terrible happened the instant he stepped out is miniscule. Improbable. Nonsensical. There’s no real reason to be concerned that in the two minute he’s been gone, something catastrophic has occurred to the shop that contains his very life’s work and passion--

Anyway, Lemm bursts into his own shop like the hallway was ablaze.

He is met with the sight of Quirrel, flat on his back on the floor of the kitchen, cushioning a vase from hitting the floor with his body and looking the complete picture of bewildered. There’s about ten different vegetables and spare dried meat bits all over the counter. There’s a frying pan on the stovetop. There are zero food items in the frying pan whatsoever. The frying pan hisses unhappily while it heats up.

“I assume,” says Lemm, “there’s a particular reason you’re being crushed by the Ouran period vase instead of making an edible meal?”

Quirrel makes an uncomfortable wheezing noise, because the vase is about the size of his entire torso. Lemm takes gracious pity on the bug and (gently) rolls the vase off of him.

“My apologies, I was--I must have bumped into it while walking past.”

Lemm grunts while he sits the vase upright. “Apology accepted, but only because your instincts were good.” That vase, in particular, was commissioned as a memento to a dead lover, made of that lover’s carapace, because Hallownest did nothing by halves. Not the only work of its kind, but the only one Lemm had saw fit to keep. “Between you and the vase, I’d rather you’d broken than the vase.”

Quirrel laughs and gets back to his feet, but it’s a brittle laugh that doesn’t seem to be in any relation to honest good humor.

“I mean, it’s just simple math,” Lemm goes on, when Quirrel gives him nothing. “How much geo would your torso be worth, hm?”

“Haven’t even a guess, I’m afraid. I leave the Relic Seeker to his professional opinion.” Quirrel pulls out a dusty cooking knife, returning to the kitchen counter. Considering that there’s no cutting board in sight, Lemm has no idea what Quirrel intends to do with the knife. “Have I stumbled onto your plan at long last? Is that why you’ve kept me around so long? You wish to harvest me for my adequate torso?”

“Ah, you’ve discovered me,” says Lemm flatly. “But no worries. Your torso will keep for a long time yet. Longer if I keep you watered.”

Quirrel chuckles, and it feels more honest this time. He goes back to--well, what Lemm assumes Quirrel thinks is cutting vegetables, but more than anything it makes it incredibly clear Quirrel has no idea what he’s doing. “Do you have a crafter in mind, or will I have the honor of being your own work?” Quirrel asks absently.

Lemm waves off the idea like it was an escaped lumafly. “Oh no, no bug could have such an honor. Never had the head for crafting anything myself.”

“All efforts need to start somewhere. Perhaps I could be donated to your new beginnings.”

Something about that makes Lemm’s shell itch. “Whatever the worth of your torso, it is surely more than that.”

Quirrel doesn’t respond. The cooking knife in his hand slows, then stops. Lemm recognizes that look on his face, and deeply wishes he didn’t.

It would be easier if Quirrel were upset, or offended at something Lemm said, but no, Quirrel is staring out the window again, watching the rain patter on the glass. Vacantly, and distantly. Again. Like so much clockwork, the gears out of sync, the hands slowly winding out of order and out of time. As unfortunately familiar and regular as that expression is, this is the first time Quirrel has become lost to the present day mid-conversation.

And standing up.

And doing something.

Lemm has a feeling he knows how Quirrel knocked the vase over, then.

There’s something about the comfortable set of Quirrel’s posture, even in the midst of this strange episode, that reminds Lemm, all at once, that Quirrel lasted in the depths of Hallownest, alone, with only his nail at his side. Even distant, even now, Quirrel holds the knife like he could make even its blunt blade dangerous. (And it seems odd, if Lemm were really thinking about it, that someone that agile would be bumping into vases like a blind belfly.)

The frying pan is still hissing on the stove. Lemm turns it off and scowls. Now his kitchen is a mess, Quirrel’s half-gone even while he’s standing, and there still isn’t any meal to eat. Lemm pokes morosely at the moss-bits, pleasantly surprised to find a half-shell of tiktik underneath everything. “Where the hell did you get a tiktik, all the way down here?” Lemm mutters.

“Never too late to start anew,” says Quirrel.

Lemm starts and knocks the dead tiktik off the counter. Quirrel snatches it out of midair with dexterity before Lemm can even move, and places it back on its plate. “What?” Lemm asks.

Quirrel frowns. “You were talking about your amateur career in vase embalming?”

“I--I was not. Didn’t you hear what I said? Where on earth did you find a tiktik?”

“Oh--that one? They wander further afield than you would think. Brave little things. I was fortunate enough to see one out in the hall earlier.” Quirrel turns away. He looks tired. “I must not have heard you. My age must be catching up with me.”

Nobody who can catch something falling in midair can be getting old. “Are you going to blame this disaster in the kitchen on your age, too,” says Lemm grumpily.

“Ah…” Quirrel looks at the disaster blast radius around him. “...No. I’m just bad at cooking.”

Lemm throws up his hands. “Fine! Fine. Here I thought I’d keep you around to make a decent meal now and then, but it seems you’re completely useless to me. Move over.”

“I can hardly have you take responsibility for this mess--”

“Oh, I’m not,” says Lemm darkly. “If I can learn how to embalm a corpse, you can learn how to cook.”

First of all, they do not need this much vegetation out on the counters. If Quirrel’s found a tiktik to eat, Lemm is of the opinion that bugs are the only thing really worth eating if he can help it. Quirrel’s drained it of infection already, and he’s salted and spiced it well enough, he just has no clue how to cook it. (Apparently, Quirrel ate most things raw for a few years. Which is really the only proper way to eat a bug, anyway, but cooking kills the taste of infection more thoroughly, so Lemm has unfortunately begun making a habit of cooking his bugs.)

There’s a period where Lemm has to teach Quirrel how to dice a root vegetable, which Quirrel can’t seem to get the hang of. For one, he keeps trying to hold the cooking knife like it were a nail. “Just cut the thing with your nail, why don’t you,” says Lemm.

Quirrel pauses, and appears to seriously consider it.

“Absolutely not,” says Lemm.

“I wouldn’t have,” says Quirrel, hastily enough that Lemm knows he absolutely would have.

Then they have an argument about whether or not they should fry or boil the tiktik, because Quirrel wants to eat it raw, and Lemm thinks Quirrel should learn how to cook something on a frying pan, but Quirrel says that half the point of a tiktik is that you can eat it right out of the open shell, and Lemm spends about twenty minutes disagreeing just because he doesn’t like that Quirrel is right, at which point Quirrel just stops listening to him and throws a dozen root vegetables on the hot frying pan, resulting in half of them starting to fry and the other half winding up in the stovetop fire, where they burst into flame.

For whatever it’s worth, the incident makes Quirrel a lot less crotchety about sitting through Lemm’s tutorial of how to roast something in an oven.

Lemm gets out his own plates because he doesn’t trust Quirrel not to disappear into his own head in the middle of carrying them. They sort out a few seeds and berries with little fuss. Quirrel pulls out the old rickety table that Lemm put away when Lemm stopped using his own kitchen in favor of eating at his desk. At last, they start to pull together a meal that actually resembles a meal, and all that’s left is to let the oven finish its roast. In the meantime, they resolve to put out some tea. Lemm owns two teapots, one of which actually cooperates when you pour tea and the other of which is a cranky bastard Lemm only kept out of spite, fondness, and camaraderie; of the two, Quirrel sets out the cranky teapot, and then all that’s left to do is wait over the sound of water hissing.

The tiktik meat is beginning to dry out by the time Lemm tries it and finds it a little bland for his taste, so Quirrel, as if is a completely normal thing to do, pulls out an entire pepper from his travel bag and cracks the juice over the tiktik.

“It helped make rations more vibrant,” says Quirrel, when Lemm stares at him. “I’m not a cook, but it’s easy to do, and even I know that more vibrant food leads to more vibrant travel, which is the most important part.”

Lemm scoffs into his beard. “Vibrant travel, he says. “Surely whatever’s out there can’t be that interesting, if it needed the assistance of spices.”

Oh, the look on Quirrel’s face. Lemm feels like a novice relic seeker again, discovering a broken-open arcane egg, seeing something wonderful but having no idea what it really means. That is to say, it is a deeply scandalized sort of expression, as if Lemm has just admitted to being a vegetarian.

“Not interesting!” Quirrel says in disbelief. “And you, a Relic Seeker, interested in history and the world as you are!”

“And I am a Relic Seeker because there’s no need to scour the boring tracts of the world for the interesting bits and bobs. I have the relics come to me. Going out into the world just means you have less luck finding artifacts, like digging through a great desert when you could instead use a sieve.”

“Oh, it’s not the same,” Quirrel says, between checking the oven again and transferring the dried berries to the serving dish. “Relics and history only speak so much. You have to go there--you have to be there, to feel the place in your shell.”

Lemm groans, good humor evaporated. “Oh, gods. You’re an outdoorsy type.”

Which explains everything, honestly. No wonder Quirrel paces like a caged beast in Lemm’s apartment. A proper wandering adventurer, no doubt, like the kind Lemm used to get a lot more often stumbling into his shop on their way deeper into Hallownest. The kind of traveller who could never sit still, always hungry for another adventure, always thinking they’d live to have a thousand adventures more.

Of course, Lemm never saw an traveling face more than once. These days he hardly sees a face to begin with. (Aside from The Knight. And Quirrel, of course.)

Lemm taps an annoyed finger on the kitchen counter. “Outdoorsy types rarely make good scholars. No patience.”

“You are perhaps one of the least patient bugs in Hallownest,” Quirrel mutters, but before Lemm can retort, Quirrel goes on: “Outdoorsy types, as you call them, certainly can be impatient. Especially if they rarely travel long distances.” Quirrel looks down towards the little table with the half-done meal and pushes the seeds around with a fork. “But wandering far afield demands more of patience than anything else. The Wastes do not reward the impulsive bug, but the methodical one. Navigating by starlight especially. The first thing a traveler learns is how to decipher directions from the night sky.”

It’s almost surreal for Lemm to hear about night sky navigation from a real living bug, rather than a long-fossilized wanderer’s journal. Journals, in particular, say their piece and take no questions; if they’re unclear or damaged, Lemm has no way of asking for clarification. It’s even more surreal, then, that Lemm realizes Quirrel is exactly one of those wanderers, now in his shop, a whole journal’s worth of knowledge in his head somewhere.

“...Did they ever lead you anywhere in particular?” Lemm asks.

Quirrel lights up like a well-fed lumafly. “The places the stars have led me! Relic Seeker, perhaps you have heard of Forest Roost?”

Lemm frowns. “The phrase strikes a bell, but a quiet one.”

“A city-state perched inside a massive tree, twice as tall as Crystal Peak and three times as wide. No tree alive resembles it.”

“Surely the tree resembles itself.”

Quirrel beams like Lemm has fallen into his clever trap. “You would suppose so, but think again! The tree itself is no longer alive! By some natural process the entire plant has become rock, aggregate, a standing fossil, an entirely natural stone tower. The clever bugs--termites, they call themselves--have hewn permanent and beautiful tunnels throughout.” Quirrel’s hands move while he speaks, not any particular gesture but more of a general excited waving motion. He leans forward, eyes bright and focused.  

“And instead of being lit by Lumaflies, they are lit by specially bred yellow lichen. The family in charge of the lichen colonies rules the ostensible Parliament, for without that light the entire city would fall into chaos.”

“Surely there are other ways of lighting a giant stone tree,” Lemm interjects. “Even without lumaflies.”

“If there was, it was certainly taboo to ask. I spent a fair amount of time in Forest Roost, and only ever saw the bright yellow glow of that specific lichen. What I would have given to see the farms.” Quirrel sighs, just as the kettle starts to whistle. “Unfortunately, outsiders were forbidden.”

“Isn’t that always the way,” Lemm says blandly, pouring the freshly-boiled water into the teapot and passing Quirrel a cup.

“You can hardly judge! You forbid your best and only customer from the back room.”

Lemm glares at Quirrel. “They come in smelling like literal dung. I swear I’ve seen the stench come off them like a cloud. That is getting nowhere near my artifacts.”

Quirrel makes a sympathetic face. “It certainly is… pungent, yes.”

“And there you have it--the perfect argument against travel. It leaves you smelling terrible.”

Quirrel chuckles. “My time in the Salt Springs would disagree with you. A deep well formed by water dripping from the caverns above, walls and ceilings themselves made of pure salt. Nothing could grow there, of course, and gods help you if you tried to drink it, but it was a certain kind of salt that had long been unearthed from some striation deep below, with the most pleasant color of rosy red. I’ve never smelled or felt better.”

“An impossibly lucky find, out there in the Wastes,” says Lemm, without meaning it. Quirrel could make anyone fall in love with traveling and wandering, the way he speaks of it. Oh, god damn him, Lemm’s actually curious about travel for the first time in his life spent indoors. “Did you have a guide?”

“Only the heavens. I was largely a solitary wanderer.”

Two solitary bugs stand together in the kitchen of a long-dead city-dweller, watching flowers roast. Eventually, Lemm pours the tea from the teapot. The sound of water runs quiet.

“A lucky wanderer indeed,” Lemm says, “to see so many places.”

Quirrel turns to gaze out the kitchen window. For a moment, Lemm wonders if he has lost Quirrel again to the echoes inside of his mind, but Quirrel says, “Lucky indeed.”

The oven chirps that it’s finished. Lemm slides the pan out to let the flowers cool, but Quirrel doesn’t move, still staring out the window into the rain.

“I had dreams of the places I’d travel to, I’d think of them so much,” Quirrel says, without hesitation or uncertainty. Simply describing an experience like nothing about it was unusual or difficult to believe.  “I’d dream of the places I’d see, as if I’d already been there, or I was there already. I dreamed of Hallownest, but even before I dreamed of Hallownest, I’d dream of other places, too, of times I’d never lived through and people I’d never met. I dreamed of them so vividly, I could have been there, spinning some storyline between the bones of what I’d heard in legends and academia, bringing it to life long before I ever arrived there. Sometimes when I arrived, they were nothing like I thought they’d be. And then I was all the more richer for it, because then I had the pleasure of visiting  two wonderful places for the price of one.”

His reminiscing expression takes on a melancholy tilt.

“But no matter what, I longed to see them. I wanted, so much. I woke up every morning grateful for one more day to see one more place, excited to get going, excited to start again the instant I had to go to sleep. I could barely wait. I longed to go a little further, see a little more. And every future was a wonder. Even those most bleak.”

“Why did you stop?” Lemm asks before he can think.

Quirrel blinks, as if he didn’t even think of the question.

Lemm regrets saying anything immediately. Lemm has the distinct feeling that he might not have been intended to hear anything Quirrel just said, but he can’t stop here, with Quirrel looking at him like that, so he’s got no choice but to move forward.

And for that matter, Lemm is not especially understanding of those bugs that found a thing they loved, found a true passion, and then let it fall away. Lemm held firmly that if a bug found their passion, it was practically a moral responsibility to grab on to it with both hands and never let go. To give up a passion was to give up on living in all but name. An utter waste.

“Well?” he says. “If you loved it so, why bother stopping?”

Quirrel turns his eyes not back to Lemm, but towards the table and the plate in front of him. Lemm can see the gears turning in his head, grinding out some sort of explanation or story. Perhaps he is simply organizing events, or perhaps he is fabricating something entirely. Or maybe a bit of both--every retelling, even the most factual and impartial, is always mostly untrue.

“The wandering…” Quirrel says, and hesitates. He speaks haltingly, as if picking his way through something fragile. “It was not truly wandering. That is to say, I discovered that my journeys had been part of a larger plan. A grander design.”

Lemm scowls. Quirrel glances up at him, but instead of being chastised, he looked pleased.

“And in journeying to Hallownest, I discovered this design, and my own part in it. My wandering, long thought to be a simple impulse to follow simple joy, was instead a small piece of a much larger picture. Perhaps that simple joy was not so simple, not so straightforward. Perhaps the love I felt was not even my own. Perhaps not even…”

Quirrel pauses, half his face hidden behind his cup of tea, and glances back towards Lemm. Every time Quirrel looks at Lemm, sidelong, Lemm just gives him the same irritated scowl he always has, and every time, Quirrel seems to grow bolder, as if pleased with Lemm’s completely lack of sympathy.

“...In any event. Now I find my journey complete. Over with. I have found that, instead of aimless wandering for the pure joy of it, I wandered for a reason all along, to find a very specific end. And now that I have found that end, there is no more reason for me to travel. My piece in this design is complete, and my purpose is fulfilled. And yet, here I remain.”

“And?” says Lemm, nonplussed.

Quirrel says, “Ah?”

And?” Lemm repeats. Quirrel stares at Lemm like he’s suddenly grown a second head. “I mean so what? I’m glad. Sounds like a fun time. Or not--whichever. It’s over, isn’t it? Now you can go and do something else. Gods know when I finish a project--even a project I loved--my relief is thick enough to cut. It’s a load off my chest, isn’t it? Go on, then. Find a new project. If you want grunt work, I’ve got fifteen projects I’ve been meaning to get to in my backroom.”

“That’s not how it works,” Quirrel says.

“Explain it to me, then.” Lemm leans forward, elbows on the table, fingers clasped before his face. Daring Quirrel to refuse to explain.

Quirrel remains stony, like that day in front of The Hollow Knight's memorial. But he sighs.

“I suppose it doesn’t matter to you, anyway,” says Quirrel, which is a rather odd thing for someone to say before explaining, but before Lemm can ask, Quirrel goes on: “In Hallownest’s day, they used a transportation system--”

“What does any of that have to do with you?”

Listen,” says Quirrel. “I’m telling you a story.”

Lemm opens his mouth to say that that doesn’t explain anything either, but Quirrel goes on:

“We used a transportation system based on long tunnels that stretched thousands of paces, and were virtually empty, so as not to obstruct the way with anything. The only bugs that travelled through these tunnels were a species of bug called stag beetles. The stag beetles carried passengers on their backs through these tunnels--”

“Good gods, if you’re going to change the subject, just say so.”

Quirrel gives him a very pointedly mild look. “Stag beetles were infamous for being huge, fast, and excellent runners. Their backs were broad and large, so as to carry many passengers at once. They could outstrip any bug, even the smallest and the fastest, at even their slowest pace, and stags could sustain that speed for the length of Hallownest--or longer, I’m sure, if they’d been allowed.”

Absently, Quirrel reaches for a dried fruit, and begins picking out the seeds just for something to do with his hands.

“As it was, they’d run the length of the kingdom and back again several dozens of times a day, and they hardly ever tired; and if they did tire, they never said, because they loved to run and did it willingly. It was what they were good at. It was what they were born to do. It was what they were bred to do--they were too large for most Hallownest walkways, and possessed no hands, as breeding had long ago tailored them for walking and running alone.

“They had no agility, and could run easily in straight lines, but often could not turn corners without stopping altogether. A stag beetle’s eyesight was so poor that they could not read, nor even recognize many faces, as their eyes had long ago adjusted to the depths of the dark, dim tunnels through Hallownest. If the stag beetles ever wanted to do something beyond their service, they wouldn’t even be able. They simply weren’t made to do anything besides run.”

Lemm feels his shell begin to itch.

“And the curious thing about stag beetles is that their legs were unusually spindly for such a large creature, with inflexible joints, nothing like what we have.” As if to demonstrate this difference, Quirrel picks up another seed, held between the sharp tips of his carapace.

“They couldn’t walk on two legs like the rest of us. Their joints only bent one way. And the joints--no, the entire leg, in fact--a stag beetle’s legs were infamously fragile, and so finicky that a stag beetle’s limbs never repaired if ruined. They were so well tailored to the act of running that they were likely to shatter in the process of doing it. And once their leg had been broken, that was it. It would never repair. They could never run anymore, and since they couldn’t do anything else but run, if they couldn’t run they couldn’t do anything, and therefore it was an unfortunate fact that any stag beetle with a broken leg was irreparably without use, and there was no other option but to put the bug down.”

Without hesitation, Lemm snaps, “And what does that have to do with you?”

Quirrel, so contemplative, so distant this entire conversation, looks shocked. Yanked back into the present by a reaction totally unexpected. “It’s a metaphor. It’s meant to be a--”

I know what a metaphor is.” In all his days, Lemm has hardly felt so infuriated. “Are you a metaphor? Are you an allegory? A parable? Are you some academic theory about the nature of bugs or stag beetles?”

Quirrel visibly swallows, the perfect picture of bewilderment. “I understand, but--”

“But are you a metaphor.

“I’m not, no,” Quirrel says. He’s looking out the window again. His expression is hardening. Lemm, of course, doesn’t alter his course in reaction to this at all.

“Then, entirely literally, entirely non-metaphorically, are you a stag beetle?”

Quirrel's stare snaps back to Lemm, face pinched. “That’s not the point--”

“But are you?”

There’s a long silence.

“No,” says Quirrel.

“Then I don’t see what stag beetles or their legs have to do with you.”

More silence. Aching, awkward, furious silence. Not even the eternal sounds of the City can pierce it, so total is the oppressive atmosphere of this kitchen, this table, and the half-made meal upon it.

“Sympathy doesn’t suit you, Relic Seeker,” says Quirrel mildly.

“I never claimed to be a sympathetic bug,” Lemm replies.

For a moment, Lemm sees, crystal clear, the image of Quirrel walking out of this kitchen and stalking off into the night, never to be seen again. Just another adventurer, exploring the depths of Hallownest and only passing through. Like so many other wanderers, off to find his fortune and his fate in a grave. Lemm braces for it.

Quirrel’s face neither concedes nor agrees. Lemm might as well have said nothing at all, for all that Quirrel acknowledges. “I believe the food is cool enough to be served,” is all he says, and puts down his teacup and begins to transfer the roasted flowers to the dishes. For the first time in a long time, the atmosphere weighs heavy like stones.

At the end of it, they’ve got a table set out with a meal for two and a kitchen full of silence. Small and rickety, the table held tools at one point, then a pile of tablets at another, and then it was put away in a corner as Lemm discovered that the floor worked just as well for any material he didn’t care much about. Now it’s got a series of plates along its top, palm-sized dishes holding bits of pickled leaves, a few dried fruits, the open half the tiktik, berries, an assortment of nuts and seeds, two roasted flowers. The kitchen was designed with a small table in mind, so while it’s less open than Lemm had gotten used to, it’s not cramped.

Lemm realizes, standing there before this spread of food they’ve prepared, that this was a mistake.

Not the food. This whole… Quirrel… everything.

Don’t ask Lemm what he did before he came to Hallownest. Suffice to say, he did it for a long time, and mildly hated it and everyone he worked with, not because they were bad or because he didn’t like his job but because everyone else hated him. Lemm and other people did not and do not get along, and for ages, entire decades, the one and only thing that brought Lemm any peace of mind was the trinkets and artifacts he could stash in his home, little safety lines to keep Lemm afloat through the long and unpleasant day with other people. When it comes to co-existing with other people, Lemm is not the sort of case who can be fixed. (He knows. He tried.)

Relic Seeker Lemm is a relic seeker through and through; he’s a collector, a bits-and-bobs magpie, a glorified hoarder. You can’t go around collecting people like relics. People need things like attention, and watering, and some other mysterious medley of things so they don’t go stark raving mad, or just generally miserable. Lemm is not the bug for this job.

He might have gotten Quirrel off the so-called ledge, but the rest of it--what does he know about Quirrel, anyway? Nothing. Well, he knows Quirrel knows a hell of a lot of history, and he’s friend with that little pest of a knight, and he knows Quirrel’s got a fancy nail he knows how to use, and he knows Quirrel tried to die. Great! Wonderful. This is obviously a very complete and very helpful list of factoids to know about a person, and definitely well-equips Lemm, an already miserably-equipped anti-people-person, to figure out what the hell he’s supposed to do when a bug says starts spouting nonsense about stag beetles and their apparent inability to use a crutch.

Speaking of, where the hell is that rotten little Knight? Doesn’t the Knight know something about this idiot in Lemm’s shop? Isn’t the Knight supposed to know what to do? Isn’t that who Quirrel is waiting for, who Quirrel stayed at this damn shop for in the first place? So where is the little goblin? Would they be able to understand where this came from? How it connects to the episodes of memory? If it connects at all?

If Quirrel goes away, Lemm won’t have to be reminded, day in and day out, that he doesn’t know the first thing about anything other than solitude.

Quirrel gets to carving the tiktik meat. It’s soft, comes apart easily, and Quirrel serves Lemm first before putting a bit on his own plate. The white meat has the barest tint of infection, but Quirrel drained it competently enough that it tastes more like a metallic afterthought that Lemm can pretend is just a bad garnish. Looking at this tiny kitchen table, Lemm has never dreaded being in the presence of another person to share a meal as much as he does now.

Which was a very high bar, as it was, but life is full of surprises.

Instead of looking at Quirrel, Lemm stares down the stupid, awful vase, preserved in resin and (now that Lemm thinks about it) horribly brittle in a way that no living carapace ever would be. Through the door to the main room, out the window, the statue of the Hollow Knight stares off into the distance, meeting no one’s gaze. Rather you'd broken than the vase, Lemm hears his own voice say in his head, and scowls deeper.

“Not hungry?” asks Quirrel, when Lemm doesn’t sit down. (Dear gods, no, Lemm is not hungry.) “And after all that effort we went through.”

Lemm scowls.

“It’s the vase, isn’t it,” says Quirrel mildly. “You think it’s gorey to have such a thing in the kitchen while you eat.”

“I’m not a metaphor,” Lemm snaps grumpily.

“Oh,” says Quirrel. “Relic Seeker, there’s no harm in dropping the issue, you know.”

Lemm very nearly hisses. “No--no, you listen to me. I’m not a metaphor, and I haven’t got any words but the ones I know and I haven’t got any experience but the one I’ve lived, and it’s been a half-life at best. I’m no stag beetle. I’ve never been of use to anyone.”

Quirrel looks up from the tiktik. There’s caution in his expression, like he’s waiting for the other blade to drop, but he still looks up.

“There’s nothing wrong with being useless,” says Lemm. “I’ve been useless from the day I was born. This whole city has been useless the moment it fell. And by the gods, we’re still here. So--so--” Lemm shoves a craggy finger in Quirrel’s face. “So you can get over your damn self, thank you very much!”

Quirrel blinks.

And then he bursts into laughter.

“Shut up!” Lemm cries. “I’m serious! And also I’m angry! Furious, even!”

Quirrel practically chokes laughing.

“I’m going to leave! Eat by yourself, you ungrateful freeloader!”

“You’re only trying to convince me being worthless is no bad thing so you can get away with not paying me,” Quirrel snickers.

“Well! ...Maybe! That’s a helpful bonus, it’s true!”

“You haggle with me over geo even after I’ve cooked you dinner!”

“You set my kitchen on fire! You owe me, not the other way around!”

“How about this,” says Quirrel, still snickering. “It’s important to keep a trade fair, isn’t it? Instead of useful, we could endeavor to be pleasant company instead.”

Lemm frowns. “Just company. Pleasant is a bit of an ask.”

“Haggling even over this!”

“I don’t take criticism in my own kitchen,” Lemm says irritably, and sits down and shoves a piece of tiktik in his mouth before Quirrel can respond, and points warningly to his full mouth before Quirrel can continue the conversation. Quirrel picks up his own utensil with that close-lipped smile of his, and watches as Lemm realizes that, despite everything, the meal actually does taste quite good.

Chapter Text

When the meals together become regular, it’s still not unusual for them to lunch apart; they’re both, still, largely solitary creatures living in a single space. Even when they do eat together, Lemm often brings work to the table, and they sit together in utter silence. Quirrel appreciates being able to sit with someone and enjoy silence, and he suspects he always has.

Wandering is largely a solitary activity, and in many ways, it is more dangerous to travel together than alone. You hardly know who you’re conscripting to your side, after all. And in other ways, it’s an imposition in itself to get too close to someone when, tomorrow, both of you could be dead, or worse, only the one of you. Quirrel has enjoyed his distance. Quirrel has enjoyed his solitude, too.

In the silent places Quirrel has traveled to, he sometimes thought that he could hear the sounds of the past, as if the air itself was soaked in the dirt, the residue, the thick breathable humid smog of old memories, ghosts in the compost, heavy blood mulch all the way down. Now, at the Relic’s Seeker’s kitchen table, he hears:

There’s nothing wrong with being useless.

I’ve been useless from the day I was born.

This whole city has been useless the moment it fell.

And by the gods, we’re still here.

And Quirrel sips his tea and watches Lemm’s scalpel pick and pry. Quirrel’s fingers are tight around the mug. Fingers taut. If this is what the rest of his life is going to be--is it not his responsibility to learn to live with it?

He holds onto his tea, makes himself sit at this table. Fingertips digging into the ceramic, holding tight, like he can make this work with effort alone.


*

 

Two days after, the Knight walks in. There is nothing about their bearing signaling any kind of apology or explanation for how long they had been gone. They plunk a wrought iron gear on the table and pull out their wallet.

“If that’s who I think it is, they better be clean!” Lemm’s voice yells from the back.

“Er,” says Quirrel.

“Check them! Not an ounce of dirt on them!”

“Hm,” says Quirrel.

The Knight looks the same as they always do: same cloak, same tiny nail, same tiny height, same blank expression. The same stolid stance, without much other body language to speak of. The same quiet, heavy presence, as if they carry some invisible weight around with them, or within them, or through them--comfortingly crushing, as if Quirrel might one day close their eyes around them and never wake up.

Also, there is a large flying baby bat attached to their back.

“Are they clean?!” Lemm calls.

The large baby bat opens its mouth wide and grins.

It has teeth. Sharp teeth.

Also a blood-red tongue.

Also, it appears to be breathing fire.

The Knight seems unperturbed.

“What’s that,” says Quirrel.

The Knight pats the wrought-iron gear.

“No, my friend, I’m referring to…”

The Knight pulls out their nail. It has been recrafted yet again, Quirrel sees.

“No, not that. Your other, ah, acquisition.”

The Knight looks down at themselves. Pulls out their charms and gestures at three new ones.

“The child ,” says Quirrel.

The sharp-toothed, bat-winged, fire-breathing baby does what Quirrel can only refer to as a cackle. Its teeth are dangerously close to the Knight’s face. There’s licks of flame coming out of its mouth.

The bat-child crawls over the Knight’s head, onto their face, and flops onto the cashier desk.

The Knight doesn’t seem to notice this either.

The bat-child leans over. Sniffs the broken half of a rather rare geode that Lemm cracked open last week, tucked away in a oiled rag. Opens its mouth--

Quirrel lunges but the child gets there first, and there’s a sick crunch as its teeth go clear through the priceless gems and starts chewing and Quirrel swears in all fifteen languages he’d forgotten he’d learned as he snatches at the little goblin who mewls happily and squirms off the desk in a flutter of huge leathery wings and Quirrel only just manages to snag it by its tail and drag it back to the desk and pin it in place to rip (rip!) the geode from its mouth and it’s still got bits in its teeth and Quirrel is really trying to not lose his mind right now because that’s crystallized geological history from Crystal Peak and the Knight’s bat-child just ate it and before he can try and pry the geode out of its mouth it burps, spits it out, and then sneezes a burst of fire over the shredded remains, which promptly burst into fire.

The Knight doesn’t seem to notice this either.

“Your lack of response had better mean the Pesky Knight was in fact dirty, and you chased them out for it,” Lemm says.

Quirrel stares at the small fire that is, actually slowly beginning to grow to consume the rest of the desk.

“Quirrel!”

“Yes!” Quirrel says suddenly. “Yes, I have, and therefore there’s no need to come out. Peaceful, empty day without customers as usual!”

There’s a long silence, during which Quirrel seizes a fire blanket and smothers the wreckage, and then: “Are you sure?”

“Very sure!”

“For some reason I don’t believe you!”

“Am I not your very trustworthy and very honest employee?” says Quirrel, while trying to pat out the burning ashes of the geode.

“I don’t pay you!”

“That wasn’t my decision!”

The bat-child’s tail thumps happily. Just as Quirrel's got the last embers extinguished, the baby sniffs a delicate grass-pleated pincushion that Quirrel was virtually certain was a one-of-a-kind artifact and opens its mouth, full of serrated teeth, and--

“Smart-mouthing me, are you,” says Lemm’s voice, just as the door opens--

Quirrel doesn’t think. He grabs the child and shoves it in a desk drawer.

There’s a loud thump and a fluttering of wings and a very tiny “nweh!” as Quirrel kicks the drawer closed. The pincushion is missing from the desktop, gods dammit. The Knight appears entirely unperturbed by having their child shoved in a desk.

“Oh. You are clean,” says Lemm when he sees the Knight. He sounds disappointed. Quirrel tries to pretend like the fire blanket is supposed to be on the desk. New decor. Fancy table-cloth. Something like that. Lemm goes on: “Didn't you say you chased them out?"

"Uhhhhhhhhhh," says Quirrel, trying to think if he actually put out the fire on Lemm's desk and what the odds are Lemm's shop is about to burn down in front of Lemm's eyes while Quirrel tries to pretend he has everything under control.

Lemm doesn't even seem to notice Quirrel's absentmindedness. "Pawning off another one of those metal parts?" he tells the Knight instead. "Hmph. Well. Give it here.”

The Knight picks up the gear and hands it over. Lemm holds it up to better light, if there’s any such thing as better light in the City of Tears.

The desk drawer thumps. Quirrel pins it shut with a knee and pushes a cup of pencils on top of the fire blanket, like it’s supposed to be there.

“You’re lucky these things are halfway interesting,” says Lemm. “What do you say, Quirrel? Six hundred? Or five hundred?”

“Er. Yes,” says Quirrel, still trying to hold the drawer shut.

“Five hundred it is,” says Lemm, and disappears the gear into his shell. “Don’t let this one loiter,” he tells Quirrel, gesturing to the Knight, before he stomps back to his room and shuts the door.

A very tiny “nwah” comes from inside the desk drawer.

When Quirrel opens the drawer, the bat-child is chewing what appears to be the mangled remains of a pair of scissors, if scissors were bent in the limp, stringy configuration of stale pasta. If the sharp scissor blades bother the child’s gums, it doesn’t show.

Quirrel dumps the bat-child back on the fire blanket which, he figures, will probably need to stay out to… fire-proof… the fire-breathing baby. He takes a deep breath. “How,” says Quirrel, “did you… acquire… this child.”

The Knight seems to think about it. They think about it for an awfully long time, actually, considering that there’s really only two ways to have a child--incubation or adoption--and obviously it must be one of those, right?

The Knight first points to the child itself, content with the amount of mayhem it has caused Quirrel already and lying there in some fraudulent imitation of docile. Then the Knight makes a series of strange gestures with their tiny hands, notably clapping them together in staccato rhythms.

“You… fought someone, for the child?”

The Knight pauses, mulling it over, and then nods.

Quirrel’s fingers tap on the countertop, as he contemplates the polite way to ask why the Knight killed Quirrel’s beloved teacher and best friend if they were just going to take her life’s sacrifice and waste it to steal babies.

(Babies, plural. Quirrel feels an unshakable certainty that The Knight would not be satisfied with just one infant.)

There’s a polite way to say that, yes? Surely there must be.

Quirrel puts his nail flat on the desktop where they can both see it. Good manners. A show of peace.

The bat-child immediate smacks it with its giant wings.

“I do not mean to pry,” Quirrel begins, because that’s the sort of thing he likes to say to let everyone know that he’s about to pry, and that he absolutely means it, but that he won’t be upset in the least if they tell him to scram. “But the path you follow, the journey that the Madam meant to aid you in… You mean to undo the dreamer seals, do you not?”

Slowly, with deliberateness, the Knight nods. The bat-child mewls on the tabletop and shoves its entire head into the cash register.

Quirrel supposes that the next question should be To what end? because he's trying to work his way around to saying Why are you wasting time stealing babies, but it is his personal opinion that asking "to what end" is banal--no, treacherous. It would be like asking why the City of Tears stands, or why Lemm seeks relics, or why the rain falls. Such questions seek answers that are finalizing--there are never any more answers to be asked, if you decide that you want to know why. If you ask any other set of questions, you’ll never have any shortage of questions to ask; to ask why the City of Tears stands could never compare to the sheer fact that it does --

-- infinitely high, in ways that Quirrel forgot, since he relocated from the City to sequester himself in the serenity of Fog Canyon all those years ago. Monomon never likes city life and she doesn’t like it now, and although she floats through the city gates with the same grace and steadiness as she always has, she remarks to Quirrel (as if it’s a scientific observation) that the water that falls in the City of Tears is lonely and empty, as fresh and cold and brisk as a blank piece of paper, without any of the words that Quirrel and Monomon have come to associate as written into the Archive’s acid.

“This is hardly my hometown, Madam,” Quirrel says dryly.

“It’s only a scientific observation,” says Monomon, as if she is not routinely and constantly disgruntled that Quirrel doesn’t mind their business trips to the City of Tears, and isn’t pointedly remarking on everything awful about the City of Tears as if she could scientifically catalog what an awful place this is.

The City of Tears isn’t his hometown, but it was where Quirrel had dabbled in the city guard before he left for the Archive, and he supposes some nostalgia never hurt anyone. The rain hits Quirrel’s mask freely, and he looks up, turning the eye sockets of his mask to the cavern ceiling. There are so many strange faces wrapped in masks of every shape and fashion, milling at the feet of giant spires, stretching up to the cavern ceiling that goes so high that Quirrel can’t even see it. For all the people walking the roads, conversing in low tones, the City of Tears is oddly silent, as if the rain and the anonymity of streets has washed away all words--

“Quirrel,” Monomon says, one tendril tapping insistently at him. “We haven’t the time for daydreaming.”

Yes, of course, they have an agenda to meet; Quirrel was the person who put together that agenda himself, when he received an agenda in the mail from the Soul Sanctum that was, frankly, a dismal mess without names or places or times whatsoever, that had ticked him off thoroughly for a good few days for the sheer disrespect it dared to show towards the Teacher Monomon--

“Quirrel,” Monomon says again, even more insistent. Her mask turns down towards him, her gray head-wrappings soaked through, plastered to her membrane, wrapping her eyes in shadow. “What have I told you about questions?”

There are no good or bad questions, but it is essential to ask the right questions. Quirrel tells the undergrads this all the time. (That, and also to start with a question, rather than trying to prove an answer.)

The rain is loud today, rat-a-tat rhythm. “We must know where we’ve come from to move forward,” says Monomon.

“The schedule says we’re supposed to move forward and meet an escort at the intersection of Alyssum and Serpent Street,” says Quirrel.

“You’re drifting from the important matters at hand,” says Monomon. (Oh, she’s very grouchy about the rain, isn’t she.) “While we must know where we’ve been to move forward, nobody can predict what the future will bring based purely upon the past. To ask what Hallownest has been in order to understand where it will go is to confine ourselves to the lack of imagination of our forefathers. The future, if it is truly in our hands, will be only ours to decide.”

The rain comes down in droves, beating its fists along the walls, a plague upon them both.

“But are we not ourselves products of the past?” Quirrel asks. “How are we to make a radically new future, untethered from the past, if we are ourselves made by it? Is it not clearly impossible?”

“Perhaps so!” says Monomon, over the increasing roar of the rain. “But we will never know unless we try! We will never know unless we see for ourselves! Wouldn’t such a future--completely new, coming to life from the old grounds of the past, unpredictable, a land never explored--after all this time, wouldn’t tomorrow be a wondrous sight to see--?”

There’s raindrops sluicing down the windows. Quirrel can’t stop staring at the glass pane.

“Quirrel,” says Monomon. “If we are go to forward, to see lands we’ve never seen before--!”

On the other side of the glass is a shelf full of relics, a desk, a shopkeep standing at the cashier counter.

“We haven’t the time for daydreaming,” the rain says.

He doesn’t disagree--he is ready to set off whenever she is--

“Please, Quirrel,” Monomon says. “You haven’t the time for daydreaming.”

Madam--?

You haven’t the time--

Water, fresh, cold, without a single word; a nail on the Blue Lake sh--

Quirrel’s nail clatters to the floor. The blade slices painfully into his foot. Quirrel swears and snatches his foot away.

The Knight stares at him unrepentantly. Their hands are suspiciously close to where Quirrel had placed his nail on the desktop before it had, mysteriously, found a way to fall off the ledge.

There's a long silence. Quirrel has the vague, sinking feeling that more time than he's been aware of has passed.

“What--” Quirrel begins.

--The bat-child is chewing on something.

“What are they eating,” says Quirrel instead.

The Knight pauses. Looks at the child.

Thinks.

Shrugs.

The bat-child attempts to swallow and starts to gag.

What ensues is the bat-child flopping like a caught fish on the tabletop and chewing with increasing ferocity while the Knight holds it down and Quirrel pries its mouth open, and then rummages around in its mouth while trying to avoid getting his hand sliced off by teeth longer than Quirrel’s fingers until he pulls out a fifty-geo piece from halfway down its throat. The bat-child mewls and howls plaintively at the loss of the chewtoy that was about to choke it to death. Unmoved, Quirrel picks it up and deposits it back with the Knight.

Its carapace is blazing hot and scaly to the touch, like dry snakeskin. Unlike other bugs with hard carapaces, he can feel its tiny chest expand and contract under the flexible scales. So fragile. So easily crushed. Quirrel finds himself being exceedingly careful with a child with fangs sharper than most nails.

The Knight pulls out what looks like a bronze tuning device lit with four glowing dots, which the bat-child immediately sinks its teeth into. The tuning device, at any rate, doesn’t break, and the baby continues to chew with relish.

Oh, gods. It’s teething, Quirrel realizes.

This isn’t even the final amount of teeth this child is going to have.

With the baby secured, Quirrel realizes that the cut in his foot is shallow, but its left a bit of blood in the engravings. He stands up, nail in hand, reaches for his cleaning cloth while The Knight watches, and decides he doesn't give a damn about subtlety anymore. Monomon is dead. He might as well get to the point.

“Didn’t you have a purpose to be getting to, Little Knight?” says Quirrel, narrow-eyed, wiping away the stain on the blade Monomon gave him. 

The Knight looks back at him, the same image of silent, stoic strength they’ve always been. The bat-child is gnawing on their cloak. The Knight lets it.

After long, long length, Quirrel realizes that they're really not going to answer. Not even with their hands or with signs or charades. Not even a nod.

Fine. Fair enough. It wasn't his place to pry; Quirrel sighs, but does not apologize for his intrusion.

"If you ever require aid in your quest,” Quirrel says instead.

The Knight nods, not in request, but a blank acknowledgement. (They might as well have said no.) Then they point to him.

“If I require aid?” Quirrel says, amused. “What on earth would I need aid for? I have a roof over my head, more than enough food, company more often than not. Living here hasn’t been bad at all.”

The Knight only looks at him.

Quirrel makes himself smile.

 

*

 

Living here hasn’t been bad at all.

Living here hasn’t been bad at all.

Living here hasn’t been bad at all.

One day, just as Quirrel is on the verge of convincing himself that this is true, a very tall, very slow tree eases its way through Lemm’s door.

Now, Quirrel have no idea what’s going on, but in situations like this, the options are usually reduced to fight or flight , and therefore Quirrel immediately resigns himself to the unfortunate possibility that he might have to fight a tree. It could be worse, or possibly somehow more bizarre and humiliating, he tells himself, even as he draws his nail--

“Are you,” says the tree, “Relic Seeker... Lemm?”

The tree towers over him, and if Quirrel squints, he can see the tiny, beady eyes of a stickbug hidden beneath the long, dried brown leaves that make up her hood and cloak. Her head brushes the ceiling, and she hunches nearly in half to fit herself within the room. Considering how many limbs stickbugs usually have--and how long, too--she’s hidden them completely within the cascades of rustling leaves. She carries no pack that he can see. Only a long walking stick, nearly three times the length of Quirrel, peeks out, its upper tip the same gnarled brown wood-color as the rest of, the bottom carved to a lethal point.

And the weirdest thing about this all is that, instead of telling her that Quirrel is firstly not the Relic Seeker and secondly is not associated with the Relic Seeker or his business in any way, Quirrel just stands there and says that no he is not the Relic Seeker, but Quirrel would certainly be willing and able to help her if she is in the business of collecting relics, and otherwise if Quirrel cannot help her then he can take a message for the Relic Seeker.

She hunkers down slowly. Quirrel would say that she moves deliberately, but he knows what deliberate looks like, and this is not it; she keeps glancing over her shoulder, and her fingers around her staff keep twitching. Her face is half-hidden by her hood and she still won’t meet his eyes. “I’m not in the business of relic-seeking,” she says, eventually, which is (forgive Quirrel’s dry humor) a very fascinating thing to say to someone while standing in a Relic Seeker’s business.

“Instead,” she pauses, slowly looks from one side to the other, as though this small shop could hide dangerous foes. “Instead, I seek a...” Another long pause. “...dealer.”

Quirrel blinks, for lack of any other response.

“Does Relic Seeker Lemm...” She pauses again. “...deal?”

This bug is either asking Quirrel for a game of cards or drugs, and Quirrel vaguely hopes it’s one and not the other. (He hasn’t dealt a card game in possibly a hundred years. It’d be embarrassing.)

She does not elaborate, but Quirrel is sorely tempted to wait, if only to ensure she isn’t taking another long pause for dramatic effect. But the seconds tick by, and she says nothing, fingers twitching on the side of her staff.

At long last, Quirrel says, “I’m afraid that we don’t offer that kind of service here.”

The mysterious stranger cocks her head to the side, slowly. “You... don’t?”

Gods, that honest confusion. What has become of other Relic Seekers out in the wide world? Has Hallownest’s abundance of mysteries shielded Lemm from a truly desperate marketplace, where the relics are so few and far between Seekers must deal in chemical pastimes to make ends meet?

“Unfortunately not, neither of us have much skill in that particular area, Miss…?”

“Ritiko,” she says, after a long and significant pause that makes Quirrel think that this is not her real name at all. “If you aren’t dealing, what are you... selling?”

Quirrel inhales, fully prepared to give a sales pitch to this obvious customer, as any good help to a shopkeep would, before he has an abrupt realization.

Lemm does not actually sell anything. Not even to The Knight, a singular gaping maw for Lemm’s geo. And before this moment Quirrel hadn’t thought to question where Lemm got his mysteriously infinite pile of wealth. In fact, Quirrel can’t remember ever seeing the cashbox empty.

But if Lemm never sells any of his relics, and if Lemm always has an endless supply of geo to pay for the relics he won’t sell...

--Oh gods. It suddenly all makes sense.

Lemm is dealing on the side to fund his relic habit.

“So you are … dealing,” says Ritiko, seeing something in Quirrel’s face.

“Oh, gods,” Quirrel says. “I suppose we are.”

Satisfied, Ritiko unslings a large pack from underneath her cloak and lowers it, slowly, slowly , to the floor. Her neck twitches again. With giant craggy fingers, she undoes the drawstring and pushes it out to Quirrel.

“These are the… goods.”

Quirrel leans forward. It’s crammed full of fine china, silverware, books, chitin bags, a candlestick. One of the books has Property of Mikodez inscribed on the side.

“Just get rid of the… name,” says Ritiko, glancing nervously over her shoulder. “Isn’t that what all the fences… do?”

Oh gods damn it all. She meant a stolen goods dealer.

“No, no, hold on a moment,” says Quirrel quickly. “I’m sorry--I believe we have each other mistaken.  We don’t deal in items so-- recently owned.”

Ritiko tilts her head. “Why… recently?”

Quirrel is not a fidgeting or nervous type of bug. Traveling where the wind (and mysterious dreams) take you would beat that out of anyone, and he wasn’t especially nervous to begin with. He finds himself at a complete loss for how to react or feel, talking to an obvious thief who has mistaken a Relic Keeper’s shop for a pawn shop, and struggling to communicate the difference between those two establishments.

Surely there is a difference besides time, right? Just because Quirrel can’t think of it in this precise moment doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

“This is a Relic Keeper’s shop, ma’am. Relic Keeping is focused on the history of the objects, and for an object to have history it must have been around a great while.”

Ritiko looks down at her pack, stuffed to the brim with odds and ends she most likely picked up by the armful in the abandoned apartments of the City. Quirrel can almost see the gears turning in her mind, looking over each of her pilfered goods and trying to calculate the age of them to bolster her argument.

She needn’t have bothered. Quirrel could tell from a glance that none of her items had any of the features that would engage Lemm’s interest. There was value in the ephemera of days gone, perhaps even more value than even the rarest of treasures, if only because the rarest treasures are more often preserved. Quirrel can easily imagine a scenario where those plates or one of those books would be invaluable to a scholar of a different breed. But here in Hallownest, such items are thick on the ground, and the past recent enough to be remembered without their aid.

Ritiko doesn’t doesn’t broadcast her conclusion so readily as her process, but she does pick up her pack and begin retying the knots. “In that case… goodbye.”

A pit violently forms in Quirrel’s stomach. She’s leaving? So suddenly?

“Wait!” says Quirrel. It leaps from his mouth, as thought it couldn’t bear to waste the moments Quirrel’s brain would need.  

She turns back, looking, now that he can see her face under his hood clearly, exceedingly wary and almost frightened. (He wonders how she managed to last in Hallownest so long with nerves so taught.) But Quirrel can’t stop looking at her long staff, with the hint of infection still staining its edges, or her long cloak, so well-worn with dust and broken stones along the edges where the road has been long and hard on her spindly feet. Her pack is scraped and battered. Well used, well loved. So many stories written on her, but he doesn’t know any of them.

“Let’s make a deal,” says Quirrel. “I’ll purchase your stolen goods--”

“Don’t say that… word,” says Ritiko, as quickly as she’s ever gotten out a series of consecutive syllables, and twitches again to look over her shoulder in fear.

“Peace, friend. There’s hardly any law enforcement in Hallownest that I know of. At least, none still with a mind of their own. I’ll purchase your… lifted goods,” says Quirrel (Ritiko still twitches), “if you’ll do me a favor.”

Her eyes immediately narrow.

Quirrel lifts his hands. “Nothing so awful. I only want to hear of your travels.”

Rather than relieved, her eyes grow more suspicious. “That’s… it?”

“That’s it,” says Quirrel. “Please, take a seat. Tell me where you’ve been, how you’ve found Hallownest. Tell me about your wanderings.”

Ritiko eases her way back inside, more slowly than ever before. Quirrel waits, a comfortingly non-threatening presence standing still behind the counter. No traps here, no sudden movements, only the honest curiosity of the bored and wanderlustful. Quirrel silently counts to 5 score in the time it takes her to settle into the seat he offered.

Even as she sits, she doesn’t remove her bag or let go of her staff. Perhaps that explains how she has made it so far.

“What do you want to… know?” she says, at long last.

Quirrel smiles. “Whatever you’d like to tell me! Surely you’ve seen some amazing sights in your travels. I can tell just by your garb and gear you’ve walked a long ways.”

Ritiko glances down at herself, and looks back up at Quirrel. “I’m not good at… stories.”

Quirrel nods sympathetically. “A common malady, in these times. Maybe tell me about your home, to start with? Where are you from?”

Ritiko pauses again. Or, no, freezes. It goes on far too long to be a pause. For the first time since Quirrel met her, she stops twitching altogether, as if she can hold absolutely still and make herself unseen to the predators nearby.

“Perhaps your most recent stop then, before you came to Hallownest?” Quirrel says, smoothly moving along the conversational track. Ritiko doesn’t relax, but some of that stiffness does leave her shoulders.

“The last Kingdom I saw… Snowy Shore.” She casts her gaze over Quirrel’s head, as though her memories occupy that space and she can see them better by looking there. “It was cold. Wet, too. Constant frost and icicles. Harsh place, with harsher rules. But… pretty.”

Quirrel can imagine. In bright daylight, the kingdom must be a glorious rainbow of light refracting through ever surface, misted by the nearby sea every night and shining anew every dawn. The picture comes to his mind so clearly and vividly Quirrel can only wonder if he’s been there before.

Ritiko stumbles over her story. She was not being unkind in her assessment of her storytelling skill. But despite that, Quirrel hangs on every word. As she speaks, the homes and businesses of Snowy Shore take shape in his mind’s eye; Sturdy, multilevel domes constructed out of clay, but always covered by a thickly packed layer of ice. The dazzling crystals made every building shine, but even aside from their obvious beauty the snow provided vital insulation from the deadly chill of the night air. The cold might have been less constant if it hadn’t been for endless wind rom the oncoming waves, blowing freezing mist over everything. To settle there was to either love the chill or tolerate it. Anyone who despised it moved.

But the cold aside, Ritiko spoke fondly of the place. She talked about all the good nooks and crannies one could find between the tightly packed buildings, the snow dazzled visitors with deep pockets, many shops with distracted keepers, everything a thief could want. Even the rarest treat, a good crew. While Ritiko lived there, she ran with a local gang that called themselves the Spikes. So named, she said, because they were as ubiquitous as the icicles over everyone’s heads and just as deadly when they struck. They did a little of everything, picking pockets, breaking into homes, taking and and selling whatever they could get for shells.

“Shells?” Quirrel says, fascination clear in his voice. It is no less than his fifteenth question, all spoken with equal enthusiasm. Every detail Ritiko mentions lights up his mind with even more curiosity than before, a burning desire to add more detail to the picture in his mind’s eye.

“Money. The Governor put his seal on a… certain kind. That was what everyone traded with.”

Quirrel takes out a single geo piece from the cashbox. “A wonderful similarity! We also use shells, here in Hallownest. Though I suspect ours are a bit older than Snowy Shore’s.” He tosses the geo her way, and she catches it without issue.

“Yes. Much younger. Treasury collected new shells once a… year.” She does not return the geo, but honestly Quirrel can’t say he expected her to. “Spikes tried to hit the treasury on new shells day once. It went…”

“... Poorly?”

“Shitty.”

Ritiko’s fingers curl around the geo. “Had to skip... town. I didn’t like... that. Snowy Shore was… nice.”

“I can imagine. Tell me, what of the shore itself?” Question seventeen, it had taken until question seventeen to ask about the shore itself! “Was the beach close to town, or some distance away?”

Ritiko looks back to that spot over Quirrel’s head for another long minute. “A short walk from the main square, but some homes were right on the... shore. The water was always cold, too cold to swim in, but it was bright. Snow met water on the beach, and all kinds of rocks and creatures would wash up on the sand. I used to… collect. Some. When I had a spare… hour.”

Quirrel soaks in this description like a thirsty, unwatered plant. A proper shore! How the sea sparks the soul. It’s been so long since Quirrel smelled salt on the wind.

“Pray tell, did you keep any? I would love to see them if you have.”

Ritiko pauses again, not locked up in fear so far as Quirrel can tell but still in honest contemplation. Quirrel manages to hit seven score before she speaks again, but he’s pleased to hear her say: “Wait…”

She digs through her bag, checking various pockets, slowly and methodically. It gives Quirrel time to appreciate how many pockets and hidden compartments her pack contains, concealed in the lining, straps, and folds on what appeared to be a simple sack. Quirrel suspects he isn’t even seeing a quarter of them when Ritiko finally emerges from her search clutching a smooth stone. She holds it out to him, but pointedly doesn’t actually hand it over. Part of Quirrel thinks clever, and another part thinks how sad.

Quirrel leans in close to examine the stone. At first glance, it is just a rock. Smooth surface, but not glass smooth. A nice grey color, but nothing especially noteworthy. A simple shape, a rounded oval, but not so perfect as to be noteworthy. But as Quirrel leans in, he can just catch flecks of stone reflecting the dim light of the shop.

“It must be a sight to behold on the surface,” Quirrel says, “If even down here I can see a ghost of its shine.”

Ritiko nods. For the first time since this conversation started, she seems honestly pleased. “Not a lot of people… take notice. Of the subtle... details. Someone who does is a rare… treat.” She pulls the stone back towards herself. “You’re... right. But only in the correct... light. That’s why I kept... it. It looks ordinary, unless you know how to… see.”

Quirrel nods. “An important skill in my line of work. An eye for detail can save your life.”

Ritiko looks at him doubtfully. “As a… shopkeep?”

“Ah, I’m not…”

I’m not? Quirrel thinks. Am I not keeping a shop right now?

Ritiko glances at his nail. She shies away from the sharp blade. “Are you a… fighter?”

“No, not that either, I…”

But wasn’t he supposed to be? Wasn’t he given this nail because he was good at cutting down the bugs before him? Wasn’t that part of his job, defending Monomon’s seal?

But he’d left the city guard, hadn’t he, because he’d hated fighting? But he was good at fighting, and he’d enjoyed being talented even if he didn’t like fighting and violence itself, and the ability to defend himself had been his best and only travel companion in the worst of places, so he was at the very least grateful to his ability with the nail--wasn’t half the reason why he’d been given Monomon’s mask in the first place because he was good at fighting? Hadn’t that been half the reason why he’d been chosen to wander in the first place?

Ritiko snaps her fingers. Except it happens in slow motion, at Ritiko’s usual glacial pace, so no sound is produced and Quirrel has to sit there and watch her rub her fingers together for five whole seconds. “Ah,” she says, “then you are a student, researching… history.”

“A student without a teacher?” Quirrel asks with a short laugh.

“There’s a word for… that. An academic, maybe, or a… scholar.”

Quirrel really hates this conversation. He rubs the blade of his nail nervously. Remembers what Ritiko said about being a fighter. Stops touching his nail.

Ritiko tilts her head. “Perhaps you used to… travel?”

Quirrel takes part in Ritiko’s favorite pastime and pauses. Freezes, maybe. It’s somehow as tricky telling the difference from the inside.

“Yes,” Quirrel says slowly, “I once did.”

Ritiko nods. Only now she doesn’t ask for elaboration, but Quirrel still feels himself giving it. “I wandered without much reason, going where I pleased. Traveling across the vast wastes between kingdoms.”

“Sounds… awful.”

Quirrel looks out into the empty air over Ritiko’s shoulder and sees the endless wastes, dotted with kingdoms like the sky is dotted with stars.

“There is no rest for a wanderer while on the road in this… kingdom. You’re lucky to have such a safe place to… stay.”

Quirrel forces a smile. He’s very sure it comes out pained. “I... suppose I am.”

“...And in exchange for this story, you will take the… goods.”

They haggle for a bit over the price, which Ritiko clearly lowballed to begin with and then Quirrel did the reflexive shop-keeper thing of dragging the price down even lower. He finds that he’s good at bargaining, too. He gets Ritiko to agree to a criminally low price. By the end of it, every inch of him feels nauseous. He’s a shopkeeper now. He’s a shopkeep. If he’s not a shopkeep, he’s a servant of Monomon, entrusted with a nail gifted to the highest of knights; his entire stomach feels like it’s been replaced with dread and squirming worms.

“Then I’ll be… off,” she says slowly. “I have many places to go… yet. And many private properties to… visit.”

She puts her empty pack on her back. Disappears her hands into her cloak. Pulls herself up to her towering height again, the tips of her antennae brushing the ceiling. Quirrel recognizes the motions of a traveller preparing for a long and dangerous road. He sees, in his mind, himself doing those exact same motions, could feel himself doing them if he tried--(but he’s a shopkeep--he’s a guard--he’s a student--he’s…)

“I will,” says Ritiko, “be… back.”

“Stay safe out there,” says Quirrel, like he’s heard a thousand different shopkeeps tell him once, long ago.

She inclines her head, only half listening, and Quirrel knows with certainty deep in his shell that, like thousands of other travelers passing by a thousand other lonely shopkeeps, he is never going to see her again.

 

*

 

Quirrel knocks on Lemm’s door, behind which Lemm is huddled under his blankets. “Relic Seeker,” says Quirrel. “I feel like it is in your interest, as the owner of this business, to know that I just purchased about two-hundred pounds of stolen goods in exchange for hearing a traveler’s adventures.”

“Hfhfmrhghffmghhg,” says Lemm.

“Wonderful! I’m glad this won’t be a problem,” says Quirrel, and then shuts the door before Lemm properly wakes up. And then Quirrel goes back to the front counter, puts his head in his hands, and begins the long wait for the next traveller.

Chapter Text

The sky spans an eternity above him, a bright and crystal blue.

Quirrel cranes his neck up, marveling at the infinity of it. So rare, a sight this clear! He could stand there for hours appreciating it, were circumstances different.  Alas, there is the temperature. Even taking this moment sets his blood to freezing, and despite his desires he has to keep moving. Keep the blood flowing, and you keep warm. That’s the first lesson anyone traveling through these tundras will tell a newcomer.

But even shifting his gaze back to the horizon grants Quirrel a magnificent view of the sky. A field of perfect azure cut clean in half by a white flatland, edges smoothed over by a thick layer of snow. Quirrel steps carefully, wet clinging mightily to his legs, practically dazzled by the bright diamond landscape before him. His eyes almost hurt in the face of so much light.

The landscape is beautiful, but not especially varied. Quirrel walks for hours and his surroundings hardly change. Quirrel can’t bring himself to mind. It’s simply too striking a view to get tired of so quickly.

He notices the smell first. It’s sharp, immediately catching his drifting attention like a fish on a hook. Salt! The unmistakable scent of salt on the wind. Quirrel’s pace picks up despite himself, excitement overpowering practicality in the face of his goal long sought. He has it on good word that as soon as you can smell the sea--

Yes! There! On the horizon, Quirrel spots the rounded domes. They stand out from the surrounding snowdrifts in their size, and their grandeur. Snowy Shore stands proud, sparkling crystal bright, haloed by the largest, most magnificent orange sun Quirrel has ever seen in his life. He can’t help the excited smile that forms on his face.

“What’s got you so chipper?”

Quirrel blinks. Turns his gaze away from the glow of Lemm’s lumafly lamp, and back towards the lamp’s owner. He’s finally turned away from his translation project, after who knows how long. Who does know? Certainly not Quirrel.

“Nothing in particular,” Quirrel says easily. He hadn’t realized he’d been smiling. “Can’t a bug be cheerful simply because he is?”

A bug, maybe. You? I doubt it.”

For some reason, that strikes Quirrel as odd. He’s certainly always thought of himself as optimistic, and bugs have remarked on his “insufferable cheer” on more than one occasion.

Lemm takes Quirrel’s silence as permission to continue. “If you’re smiling, you must have a reason.”

Quirrel shakes his head. “I have nothing to offer you, my friend. I find myself amused by the workings of my own mind. I am a simple bug who takes simple pleasures.”

Lemm frowns. Not his usual frown, but a new one. “You aren’t the type for simple pleasures.”

“You speak with such authority on my opinions.”

Lemm frowns at Quirrel, harder this time. This frown is more familiar, the thin lipped frown he makes when Lemm realizes he has made some error, but doesn’t know what sort yet.

Lemm says something. The rain patters on the windows as Quirrel doesn’t respond for a moment, then an age, the conversational thread left to die like a fish dragged onto dry

land, quiet and sleep-heavy mulch. The cool air is as welcoming as it is foreign. The ground is full of old life, young bodies, a thousand fragile shells compressed to impenetrable fossil. A thousand lives together to make the eggshell of the world, waiting to crack.

The shell turns to mulch beneath his feet. Compost. Soft. Giving way to his weight, sinking into sand and glass and corpse-debris. Footsteps grow heavy and difficult. He keeps going now only because he can see the end, and there’s very few things Quirrel wants more than to see the end.

Sand bleeds to water, blue as the sunny, cloudless sky that he only ever saw a few times in his life. Sun glitters off the lake waves. He looks up--there is no sun, only the deep cavern walls of Hallownest. The Blue Lake glimmers gaily, friendly. The sand is warm ( is it warm? Wasn’t it rather cold, the last time he ) around his feet, as if already shaping itself to his body, a grave of his own making.

He wedges his nail to the ground. Doesn’t want it. Never wanted the damn thing. He especially did not want it during the times that he did want it. He’ll be happy to see such a deadly weapon off his hands, even if he knows it’ll only hang above his head as a tombstone, now. He knows that Monomon’s nail had him marked from the moment he held it, and he supposes it’s only right it’ll make him when he’s

out here again,” says Lemm.

The orange of the hallway outside Lemm’s shop is a soft orange glow in Quirrel’s eyes. “You’re a sleepwalker, now?” Lemm says. The Relic Seeker sounds tired. Almost too tired to be grumpy. “You can’t wander around in the middle of the night, losing your head like this.”

“There’s no night or day down here,” says Quirrel, amused.

“Well, there are husks , and they won’t be sympathetic to your traveling beauty sleep if you walk about without defenses. You’d need at least a nail to keep you alive. Come back in already.”

Quirrel looks off into the dark hallway. Or was it bright? Wasn’t it bright only a moment ago?

“Quirrel, I swear to all the dead gods. I’m tired . Hurry up. Come

down from there,” snaps the guard. Quirrel doesn’t wince. Spreads his hands peaceably. Oh, it’d be much easier to look unthreatening if he didn’t have his nail, but he’s got to keep himself alive, doesn’t he?

It’d also be easier to look unthreatening if he weren’t trespassing on restricted territory.

“Ah, hello there,” says Quirrel. “I didn’t see you there. How goes it?”

“Better if you weren’t lurking by the entrance to the lichen farm,” says the guard.

Not very easily distracted, then.

“Is that where this hallway leads?” Quirrel says blithely, looking at the hallway he was two inches from entering as if in complete surprise. “Oh, dear. That’s restricted access to foreigners, isn’t it? I had no idea, sir. Terribly sorry. My mistake.”

There’s a pause. The guard squints up at Quirrel in the dim light of Forest Roost’s pulsing lights, thick and drooping like golden honey. The light of the lichen, beautiful as they are, threaten to drop and engulf them all. Quirrel loves them. (If they’d just let him see the farm—)

“Are you getting down,” says the guard.

“Oh, is that what I’m supposed to be doing?” says Quirrel amiably, inching closer and closer to the door.

“Sir, this is your last warning--”

Just past the doorway, just down the long, endless hallway, Quirrel thinks he can see the glow of the lichen farms, warm, glowing, growing. Just down the hallway--if he can just get there--he can just reach

the tubes as the assistant lifts them down to Quirrel’s height. “If you’re going to learn under the Teacher,” says the assistant, with a touch of haughtiness, “your first step is to learn the Teacher’s shorthand.”

Quirrel nods peaceably. He has no idea what they mean by a shorthand, but he sure does know that this assistant doesn’t expect him to last long. That’s too bad for them. Quirrel already sold nearly everything he owns and handed off his leased City of Tears apartment to someone else and packed all his remaining possessions into a single bag on his back. He’s homeless. Either Quirrel makes his home on the road, like one of Unn’s many pilgrim-followers, or Quirrel finds a way to stay at the Archives. That sort of motivation can’t be stopped. Quirrel would know. He’s the one who made sure of it.

The assistant plunks the tube in Quirrel’s hands, where it glows gently, cool against his shell. KING-MANTIS-O-PEACE-O-CONFLICT-SECOND-ALL-COMBAT-TRIAL, it reads. THIR-HONOR-WAY-LIFE-SECLUDED-DISTANT-CH-BULWARK-O-DEEPNEST.

Quirrel looks up, on the verge of asking for a dictionary, or some kind of syntax decoder, when he catches sight of the assistant’s smugness. “Wonderful,” says Quirrel instead. “A beautiful challenge. I look forward to decoding

this damn egg,” Lemm says irritably, and Quirrel blinks. There’s a cutting board in front of him. A root vegetable half-diced on the kitchen counter. Quirrel’s in the Relic Seeker’s kitchen. “Have you killed yourself trying to make breakfast yet!” Lemm calls through the doorway.

Slowly, Quirrel begins to dice the vegetable. “It’ll be just another moment,” he calls back, wondering how much longer he’ll have to play at this domestic game, when he can go back on the road and live off what the land gives him like he always used to, when he can go back to real life, not this half-shadow of pretending to live in the deathless shop where Relic Seekers keep old and rotten history alive long past when relics should have been left in the ground--except there’s no travels to be had, anymore, all the wonders in the world condensed into Monomon’s call for him; there was never anything wonderful for him to find and he’s already seen what he’s been made to see, as he watches the cooking knife slice into the flesh of the root, severing fibers, parting soft skin with cold

metal lines, or abstract pictograms, but here--on yours, the engravings are so fine and thin that the metal looks clean and flat from a distance, which is a curious move I’ve not seen before.”

Lemm raises Quirrel’s nail to the terrible light. Quirrel watches him dispassionately. If he wears a pleasant face, Lemm will stop talking about Quirrel’s nail, and Quirrel can pretend this never happened.

“And here, it looks like the blade is carved in what was either endless strings of nonsense letters, code, or entirely aesthetic tribute to the idea of language, which is another style I’ve never seen.”

Quirrel’s short wanderer friend had a rickety, bent, nearly cracked old nail when he first met them. A relic in itself, the short, one-handed style speaking to an age of knighthood that even allowed bugs that small to wield nails. The edges were clean of rust. Like any other steel nail, it bent, rather than cracked. But fracture lines spread down the middle, ready to split open. No words, no pictograms, no text, no pictures. It speaks nothing nothing but pure history of well-worn, well-used, hard use, blunt violence. It’s charmingly honest. Quirrel doesn’t know where the Knight got the nail, but he feels like it belongs to them and no one else. He wonders if the nail was ever given a name. If the nail has the same name now that it’s been reforged.

If a nail is remade and remade and remade and remade, is it still

the same place?”

Quirrel doesn’t respond.

“Quirrel,” says Lemm. ( DANGER. ) “Come back inside.”

“It’s rather nice out here, though,” says Quirrel. The hallway is a lovely bright gold. ( THE SUN WILL RISE AGAIN. ) A wondrous sight. Everything Quirrel sees, nowadays, is beautiful.

There’s a hand on Quirrel’s shoulder, pulling him back to the shop ( DANGER ), pulling him down to look at him ( KILL HIM ), and Quirrel frowns at the crease between Lemm’s eyebrows. “Are you alright?” Quirrel asks. “You look worried sick.”

Lemm gives Quirrel a (KILL HIM) dirty look. “Am I …” he scoffs, and then jerks his head down the hallway. “What on earth is so interesting out

here,” the bug coughs, and her hand scrabbles at the leaking hole in her shell. “It’s… fine. Just leave me.”

“I’m sorry,” Quirrel says. He’s not apologizing. Dying is an occupational hazard of travelling. But he is sorrowful to see a young bug die in her prime, and he does mean it when he says, “Is there anything I can do for you?”

She shakes her head. How typical of those travellers he’s met dying on the road. He’s seen this script play out before.

He tries again: “There’s worse places to die. You’ve picked a good spot.”

She wheezes. It was probably a laugh. Her filmy eyes flicker across the little camp she’d set up within the cave’s safe walls. Her travel bag’s content are strewn across the corpse of her murderer. Quirrel’s nail is still lodged in the bug’s carapace.

“Open road… open sky…” she murmurs.

“A long road to travel,” says Quirrel quietly. Her eyes are losing focus. It seems right to him to speak lowly, but he couldn’t tell you why; if he were dying, he’d rather not have anyone treat him any differently--not an ounce of sympathy, not even when he’s cold in the ground. Stoicism to the last. “What brought you this far?”

“I was going to…” and she trails away. Her eyes are fixed on the cave opening, through which where the stars are bright in the pitch-black night. “I don’t think it mattered. I think… I just wanted to see how far I could go.”

Quirrel bows his head.

Unsteadily, she pulls herself up on her elbows, and begins to drag herself towards the cave opening. Liquids leak from her open shell, and Quirrel begins to protest. “Don’t,” she gasps. “I have to… Don’t help me. It won’t matter if I don’t… go… on my own two…”

Quirrel has the sudden conviction that she’s going to run out of strength just a few steps from the cave opening, and Quirrel will have to make a choice: drag her the rest of the way so she can breathe her last under the clear night sky but without the victory of having gotten there on her own power, or leave her to die inches from her goal with her dignity intact. Quirrel hovers over her. Reaches out again. “No!” she snaps. “I have to get there--on my own! My travels--belong to me . The places I’ve… seen, the places… I’ve been… belong to me. This road--belongs to me… I belong… to

you, Madam,” says Quirrel, grip tight on his nail. The flat of his blade shines upwards at her in offering.

Monomon lifts her head as if to speak, and then they both freeze at the sound of the royal retainers approaching. The Pale King’s servants let themselves in.

Quirrel had thought they’d have more time.

“We’ll speak about this later,” Monomon whispers hurriedly; she must not be thinking in her panic, because there will be no later, not if the King’s retainers are already here. “What use have I for a nail?” she says, sounding distracted, even as she straightens to receive her executioners with grace. “Why should I commission the Nailsmith for a nail for me? The dead shouldn’t be burdened with such things; to fight, to struggle, is a gift for those still living. Quirrel: Do not forget: that blade bears words from your own heart--that nail belongs to

me,” says Lemm tiredly.

“Nonsense,” Quirrel replies. “There is no need to worry. No need to worry at

this old shop here,” says the shopkeeper. She’s got a grim smile under her rather impressive beard. “It does it’s job well enough. Anything a traveler would need, I’ve got it.”

“An admirable service.”

“It keeps me fed,” the shopkeeper replies. “And it’s easy enough.”

Quirrel pulls a bag of berries from the shelf, wrapped in a weaver silk bag. Next to it, he lays down a wicked looking grappling hook, curved to puncture stone and carapace alike. Next to that, he lays three of the local currency, and hopes he hasn’t mistaken a five-hundred piece for the fifty-piece he meant to pay with. “It’s not an easy task to know what a traveler needs to live,” he tells her.

“Food and water and a good weapon,” she says shortly.

He laughs. “We’re hardly so low-maintenance! Give yourself some credit. I could never do your job. I’d rather

listen to me ,” Lemm says. “I’m talking to you.”

“No one else,” Monomon says, and Quirrel transcribes it onto paper dutifully, with unwavering script. “I would be honored, My King. Signed,

I like that,” Quirrel murmurs. “I like that very much.”

He doesn’t have to do this anymore.

There’s nowhere else Quirrel would rather be.

Quirrel never told Monomon why he’d moved to the Archives, but when he was building Uumuu, piece by piece, core by core, memory by memory, hope by hope, Quirrel would sometimes tell Uumuu the bedtime story of how Uumuu came to be. “Can you read this for me?” asks the child, and Quirrel looks around immediately for their parents, but there’s nobody there. Quirrel looks down at the small child on the side of the road, looking up at the signpost, and wonders who’s more dangerous: the wanderer with some nail and an ugly hat, or the mysterious child standing alone at the side of the road. Isn’t this how ghost stories start? Any second now, the child’s going to turn around and there’ll be nothing there, no face, no soul, just two empty eyesockets where the face should be. “They’re not ghosts,” says the Confessor tartly, when Quirrel opens the notebook and shows her the drawing. “They’re regrets. Stains. A pressure upon this time from another.” He writes this down, scribbles in the margins: What makes some regrets heavier than others? Why do some regrets linger, and not others? What makes some regrets worth more than others? If a regret doesn’t leave a stain, where does it go? “I can’t read anything on this sign, my friend,” Quirrel says apologetically. “It’s not a dialect that I’m familiar with. The child makes a face. “Don’t be silly, Quirrel,” says Monomon. “Putting any of the acid with research inscribed in it would be a waste of good text. It’s not possible to read while you’re dreaming, after all.” Uumuu wiggles as best as it can. Somewhere, deep in Uumuu’s cores, lies everything the Teacher ever discovered, researched, read, wrote, or knew. “You’re a better student than I,” Quirrel tells it, one hand on its gelatin skin. “You don’t memorize, or read, or hear. You just know.” The Knight raises their nail as Uumuu advances, crackling with electricity. The Knight’s eyes are two empty eyesockets, not a trace of fear, neither challenge nor cowardice nor acceptance of defeat, like even now, before it’s happened, the Knight can see Uumuu dying. “Settle down or you won’t hear the story,” Quirrel tells Uumuu, as if Quirrel ever built Uumuu to comprehend complex speech. Uumuu gets the message from his tone of voice. The story goes like this: Quirrel is wide awake an hour before the bell rings. The barracks are full of other snoring bugs, city guards in training just like Quirrel, and Quirrel feels like he’s going to crawl out of his skin. Quirrel is pressing a hand to the glass and he is in love; the City of Tears sprawls below him, gorgeous, waiting for him, one of the destinations he’d so longed to visit, and now he can’t make himself go. If he goes, will he ever have this moment again? Could walking along the streets of the City of Tears ever possibly compare to this feeling of seeing the City just beyond his grasp? Maybe he loves things he can’t have the most. Maybe he loves when what he wants is behind glass. Maybe he loves wanting and loves loving, more than he ever loved the endless patter on the barracks roof that he doesn’t even hear anymore—gods, he doesn’t even hear it. The filigree of the barracks floor is a work of art alone, and it’s used as floor décor! The strange, lumpen faces of the other city guards in training of such shapes and sizes, most of them towering over Quirrel, some of them only up to his waist, and he’s forgotten to see, forgotten to marvel at it all! All those years Quirrel spent desperately yearning to live in the City of Tears, and now that he’s finally come to live at the City of Tears and join its city guard, he’s somehow stopped seeing the City at all—and what’s the point of being here if he’s forgotten why he came? There’s nothing worse than taking being alive for granted, if you asked Quirrel. Quirrel flips through the wanderer’s journal; pages and pages and pages of the wanderer extolling his own virtues, claiming how he could never be taken unawares, how he’d never fall to Hallownest’s tricks. It’s a rather long read. At length, Quirrel sits down and props his feet up on the wanderer’s old, fossilized corpse, and keeps one eye on the cave entrance. Death and dying, in Hallownest, is the default. He’s prepared to die at any moment. (Although he rather hopes it’s not now, because reading this terrible journal would make for an awful way to go.) “As a faster means of notes,” says Monomon. “And time is nothing if not of the essence.” Quirrel crosses his arms. “It’s difficult for the undergrads. And it’s unlike you to parrot quaint turns of phrases for the sake of argument.” A grave accusation, in their books. Monomon inclines her head sharply. “Because I did no such thing. Time is an essence. Even ‘quaint turns of phrases’ have meaning if you can make meaning of it, and I’ll insist on making meaning out of anything,” says Monomon. “And when you find a better way to live in a world without meaning, I shall be glad to hear it’s in vogue to keep a journal of the pilgrim’s road,” says one guard over Quirrel’s head, and the other guard scoffs. “What’s the point? That’s for people walking through Unn’s territory. It’s not like we’re going anywhere.” And Quirrel puts his head down and flips to the next page of the journal, trying to keep the pages dry. It’s really not working, but he’s still got to try. "Locking texts away is a crime, my student. No words should be kept where they cannot be read." “So wager something else,” says the dealer, as if it’s not clear to everyone in the entire casino that Quirrel came to this one-road town with nothing but his nail and his bag and his life. If the dealer doesn’t want to take the wanderer’s journal Quirrel picked up along the side of the road, Quirrel’s got nothing else, which is a shame, because this casino is one of the most beautiful Quirrel’s ever seen—made entirely of red and gold and purple tapestries, the town moves vertically, with lodging sewn in like pockets to the long, flowing roads, long like the golden days of Quirrel’s travels that he can see so clearly. “I already wager my life every day as a traveler,” Quirrel tells the dealer, who cracks a smile beneath her mask. “Because there’s no place quite like Hallownest,” says Monomon softly. No, of course, not, nothing quite like this wonderful corpse of his home at last, home at last. Could anything compare to these sprawling, endless caverns full of mysteries to explore, to unearth, to feel the joy of something precious and worth living to see? The Knight sheaths their nail with their mask nearly split in half. The vengefly quivers and shudders and goes limp at their feet. Charming, Quirrel thinks; how beautiful; no guise in the Knight’s mask whatsoever, no claim to fairness or kindness, and if only the poor wanderer knew, Quirrel thinks as he flips the page, if only he knew how quickly Hallownest kills if you let down your guard for a second, if only this poor wanderer knew how alive you could be when you’re just on the verge of death; that there’s no life to be found in living properly, in a kitchen with utensils, with a desk, a cash register full of geo, a shelf of loved relics. Life’s got to be pulled out of him with a string--that’s half the point of traveling--how can you know who you are if you aren’t at the brink of yourself? The sharp nail-edge of near-death is a hook in your soul, sinking fast into the water, without a single text to keep her company, Monomon the Dreamer has her personal assistant, Quirrel the Scholar, close and seal the top of her tank under the watchful gaze of several royal retainers. Quirrel has no opinion on this--none that will go on public record, at the very least. He presses his hands flat, palms down, to the cold metal, and doesn’t think about this at all, has no thoughts whatsoever, prays for the wind and sand to wash his head clean and empty acid all around her as Quirrel picks his way through the seals, fishes Monomon’s head free of the acid. The Archives are dark. There is nobody home. All the teachers and students and staff infected or gone. The retainers shooed away. The Pale King must not know. Quirrel holds his breath against the thick sour smell of the acid and tilts Monomon’s empty mask up towards him, her face floating on the surface of the water like a lily pad. He puts his hands around the mask edges. The acid still lingering on the porcelain burns in his carapace joints. The tips of his fingers dig deep into the wood of Lemm’s desk and don’t even leave a dent in the Monomon’s flawless face. He holds tight. He pulls. Pulls hard. Monomon’s body hangs heavy, unresisting, limp with all her weight and corpse-like, suspended from her face and Quirrel’s fingers a noose around her neck, as the edges of her face peel up and off her head and away and Quirrel feels the skin attached to her mask clinging and the slow, slow rip as the skin begins to give and Monomon dissolves and the Knight doesn’t stir in front of Quirrel. Their nail is firmly in its sheath as if to say, I had nothing to do with it, I’ve not killed Monomon at all, even as Monomon breaks apart into dream essence, like a book Quirrel dropped into the acid, and Quirrel just sighs and watches his mistake drift away and vanish, eating away at the edges, letting the ink and the words float free in the acidic text. Too late now. His mistake. He really should learn to start using the acid tubes for his notes more often, but using weaversilk paper is a hard habit to break. If his memory were any better, he could just do away with notes altogether, but he forgets more and more, nowadays, can’t even remember which way is north. “Have the stars changed?” Quirrel asks a local shopkeep at the next stop, and the shopkeep sighs and points to an infographic pinned to the side of her desk, detailing something-or-other about hemispheres and how those affect the placement of the stars. The Knight’s map is stained with orange. It smells sugar-sweet and vaguely damp, which is not the smell the husks have; the husks smell like sugar-sweet and compost mulch. It’s Uumuu’s rot in the seams of the Knight’s cloak. If Quirrel bundles up these stains on the ends of the Knight’s cloak, would the Confessor recognize these smears of orange as all that is left of Uumuu, which was all that was left of Monomon? Quirrel doesn’t understand. He tries not to be a pest, asking the shopkeep to explain the idea to him, slowly, concept by concept, illustrated on the blackboard so that Monomon doesn’t forget to explain something vitally important to him, which she only did the one time but Quirrel will never let her live it down. “Because I enjoy it,” Quirrel says simply, and the child frowns at the signpost again, as if the sign is at fault for what they don’t understand about Quirrel, or that meaning might be stored in words, as if knowing can be stored in Uumuu’s flesh, as if everything worth saving about Monomon could ever tear as the Knight’s nail twists, digs deep into Uumuu’s exposed core, peeling the skin open, sunlight sugar unspooling down the Snowy Shoreline, lapping at the boats, gently rocking in the soft and silent dark, a thousand roads and not even a single name to anyone. Names were long ago forbidden in the Kingdom of Halves, Quirrel learns, the mere concept of a singular individual self long ago decreed nonexistent by the word of lesser gods of this land, in the shape of a thousand followers’ belief. There’s nothing to a small god: all you have to do is close your eyes and believe they have power over you, and they do. As Monomon said: And you will be my keeper. And Monomon said: You will travel alone, far from here. And Monomon said: You will do as you will, but you will be as I say. And Monomon said: This nail will keep you alive. And Monomon said: Your life must go on so that you may keep me dead. And Monomon said: Although you may forget, love need not be remembered. And Monomon said: I will love where you have forgotten. And Monomon said: Every step you take, every land you visit, every long traveling road you come to love, that is me within you. And Monomon said: if this moment, watching the City of Tears below him through the dark glass with the city lights at his fingertips and love in his heart, could last forever, Quirrel could die happy here in--

“--the Teacher’s Archives?”

Quirrel opens his eyes.

 

*

 

The silence of Lemm’s study hangs over them. The soft taps of rain on the glass highlight the absence of sound more than replace it, and the distant light of the lumafly street lamps flicker through the misty air outside. Inside, Quirrel sits on Lemm’s couch, arms loose at his sides. He turns his gaze from the floor to Lemm, sitting at his desk. Lemm does not turn to face him.

Lemm clings to some semblance of his usual demeanor by his fingernails, hunched over like he’s working on something. But the only thing there is that acid stained Wanderer’s Journal, hardly a project for a Relic Seeker as proficient as Lemm. Yet he leans over it like it contains step by step instructions for translating and transcribing the contents of an Arcane Egg. He does not look at Quirrel, but in the way a hunter purposefully doesn’t stare directly at prey. As if to avoid startling him.

“This journal mentioned it,” Lemm says. It’s stiff and slow, a performer reading lines. “Look, this stain. From a Fog Canyon acid bubble.” Lemm taps his finger on a circular burn on the journal’s edge. “Which means… it’s probably true.”

Quirrel takes a moment to follow Lemm’s halting logic chain. “So other journals lied about it? The Archive?”

“Journals lie about everything,” Lemm says, the almost not-quite sing song of a phrase dutifully memorized and repeated. “Especially famous places. I have no less than five journals that claim to have found the White Palace. All of them entirely different and none of them anything like contemporaneous records.”

Lemm’s speech has almost fallen back into his familiar, comfortable patter, but then his gaze twitches Quirrel’s way and he stiffens up again.

“The acid lakes of Fog Canyon had an especially fearsome reputation. Even compared to the pools of the Fungal Wastes and Kingdom’s Edge. Perhaps because the bubbles there made the acid a much more unpredictable risk.”

“I…” Quirrel says, speaking before he had anything of much value to say. But the thought grows despite himself, as though he has been neglecting something talking fulfills. “I journeyed there. Fog Canyon. The bubbles were no great difficulty.”

Normally, Quirrel would expect Lemm to wave a hand, dismiss the thought with a physical gesture. Instead Lemm is still, continuing to stare at that wanderer’s preserved words. “There might not be a reason. Fog Canyon’s reputation could have sprung from the Archive itself. So often places are warped and stained by the things bugs built within them.”

Quirrel feels the truth of Lemm’s words in his core. So many places he’s traveled, so many memories that even now churn and swish in his mind, ready and braced to surge up in a great wave and pull him down, down, down again into their endless depths-- those memories are full of places molded by bug’s hands, places changed by their lives and deaths.

What changes, Quirrel wonders, Have I imparted on the world? What sort of stain would my death leave?

“--cently?”

Quirrel’s eyes refocus. He has to take a moment to blink, because they feel itchy and dry. “I’m sorry?”

Lemm actually turns to look at Quirrel, something strange flickering in his eyes. “You said you had been to Fog Canyon recently?”

The lumaflies flutter, bright orange in their lamps.

“Yes.”

Lemm leans forward, staring at Quirrel, fingers folded in a contemplative tent. “Did you see the Archive?”

At the faintest edges of Quirrel’s awareness, almost entirely hidden beneath the sounds of rain and breathing, he hears tiny wings beating against glass.

“Yes.”

Lemm doesn’t move or say anything. For a long minute, there is only the noise of silence. Then, he sits up. “The Archive…” he says, as though skimming through an internal index on for the name. “Or the Teacher’s Archive, as it came to be known.”

Lemm’s chair creaks as he shifts his weight. The rain gains new ferocity and batters the glass. The lumaflies flutter.

“Legends say it stored all the knowledge of Hallownest. That anything written was copied over and preserved within its halls, from the finest poetry, to the most rigorous studies, to the most incidental bulletins of Dirt Mouth community events. Knowledge, theories, legends, artifacts... to hear it told, The Archive held them all and several dissertations on each one, for good measure.”

“This journal,” Lemm says, not turning back to look, “tells of a building at the center of an acid lake, in a clearing free of Oomas and Uomas. They describe it as The Archive, and eagerly list all of the questions they hoped to have answered once they went inside. Of course, next entry is nigh on incomprehensible. Hasty scrawl, nothing differentiating copied text from the attempted translations, and, of course , the acid stains.”

Lemm shifts the journal down to the far side of his desk. It’s practically pockmarked, spotted with flecks of acid that Lemm has carefully cut out and pasted over, so the pages can once again be turned. The text on the pages is just as Lemm described, only somehow even moreso. The only words that stand out as legible are at the top of the page, and even that relatively clear line is cut off by an ink blot. PEER-CH-VOID-VESS--.

“What a Relic Seeker wouldn’t give to reverse all the acid stains in the world… A hefty price, let me tell you.” Lemm slides the journal back over. “It cuts off after that. Can’t say I’m too surprised. Journals delivered by your short companion have sudden endings in common.”

Lemm rocks in his chair, oh so slightly, just enough to make the wood groan. It’s a familiar noise, one that fits into this space of Lemm’s study, something as worn in as the grooves of the wood itself.

“You know, I had a suspicion I recognized that text. Or at least, the style. Not quite gibberish, but not any sort of code I had seen before. Except for one place.” Lemm turns to gaze at the nail, hanging in its sheath on Lemm’s wall. “A variation of it is carved into your nail.”

Something unsettles the lumaflies. They scramble around each other, throwing the thin and angled shadows into a strange dance. Lemm doesn’t pay it any mind, still looking at the nail on the wall.

“The Archive would be more than an invaluable resource. Even if it was ransacked, there’s a lot that could be learned even from the walls and floors. Nevermind if any of The Archive’s system of information storage survived. Acid writing was said to be more durable than weaversilk paper or even tablets, but it’s impossible to tell unless you go there and check for yourself.”

Water falls onto glass. Wood creaks. Tiny wings flap. Shadows shift. “If you’ve been there recently-- and not to cast dispersions on your ability to recount your travels, you have a knack for detail. But, if you’ve been there recently, if that is where you found your nail... I think I’d like to see The Archive myself.”

Silence.

It stretches too long. Lemm begins to fidget.

“And don't act like you wouldn't either!” Lemm says with more life than he’s had in the last ten minutes. “I've seen you gazing out into the hallway! Practically scratching at the door. Maybe if you stretch your legs, get some of that fresh air you outdoorsy types bang on about, you'll be less inclined to wake me with your muttering at ridiculous hours of the night!”

Silence.

Lemm huffs. “It’s traveling, isn’t it? Getting out of the house?”

Silence.

“Isn’t that what you want ?” Lemm insists, a little desperately.

Slowly, Quirrel smiles.

“Yes,” Quirrel says. He says it with confidence and the beginnings of satisfaction. “It would be a journey, but I could escort you there.”

 

*

 

All of Monomon’s knowledge, all of Quirrel’s work, all of Hallownest’s history is still there in the Archive. Quirrel knows no one better than Lemm to inherit it.

And then Quirrel can rest.

And it will be as it should be.

For all intents and purposes, Quirrel is already dead. In going to the Archive, Quirrel is correcting a small error. A short digression in his tale. Some sorry epilogue that should never have been written. Why had Quirrel even left The Archive? Wandered to the shore of Blue Lake, looked on at the calm waters and sat with The Knight? There wasn’t any need of it. He haunted Lemm for a while, one spirit out of many hanging in the thick still air of Hallownest.

Ghosts are a stain on this world--some regret that forgot its own death. He’s sorry to have darkened Lemm’s door with his regrets for this long. He’s been a terrible houseguest. It is only in passing on the fossilized relics of Monomon’s life that maybe, maybe, all of this will have been worth it.

Lemm drags a dusty and half crushed pack out from the depths of his closet. Most of the closet’s contents have been excavated in the endeavor, spread out in piles on Lemm’s floor. Laying forlornly in the center of the piles is the pack. It might have once been a simple brown color, but now it has taken on the color of dust and the crusty texture of age. Lemm grunts at the pack, like its sorry state is its own fault and Lemm knows it could have done better.

“It seemed bigger back then,” Lemm mutters to himself, poking the bag with his foot. It doesn’t twitch, so Lemm gains enough confidence to peek inside. Finding nothing nesting in the main pocket, Lemm sets on filling the bag with everything he imagines he will need for a multi day trek to Fog Canyon.

Quirrel watches. His own pack has been ready to go since he arrived. The nail is on his hip.

While he watches Lemm pack (without checking all the pockets first?), Quirrel thinks. He thinks more than he has for a long while, or, no, perhaps he only thinks more deliberately than he has in a while.

He even knows precisely how he will do it.

Quirrel will disappear, as he always should have. Gone off to join his lady like a proper bug of her service, a tool erased now without any other purpose. Lemm will excavate Madam’s work and encase it in his shop. Quirrel will be returned to the Archives from which he came.

The trick, now, is Lemm’s understanding, which Lemm would never give. Lemm would not understand that this is no tragedy, but a mercy to let Quirrel sleep at last. (Lemm has given up on the bedroll and moved on to layering stacks of notebooks into the pack, more than would be comfortable to carry for an hour, nevermind a days long trek. Goodness.) The question becomes how to make amends with his host from beyond the grave.

Before, Quirrel left a deliberate marker before he made his way to the Blue Lake’s waters. In part because he honestly believed the dead should not be burdened with weapons, but mostly as a small kindness to The Knight. Instead of vanishing into nothing, the nail would signal that Quirrel left deliberately. That wherever Quirrel was now, it was someplace he had decided to go. More than anything, Quirrel believed--and still believes--that the Knight would rest easiest knowing that Quirrel had gone on his own strength.

For Lemm, a distinct marker would be almost a mystery to solve, and all the clues pointing to a situation that Lemm had clearly tried to prevent before. Quirrel does not want Lemm to feel like he failed. Most of all, Quirrel doesn’t want Lemm to pity him, when this always has been and still is his choice. So, instead of something deliberately deliberate, Quirrel will leave something deliberately accidental.

A loose tile, perhaps. Some well placed scratches where Quirrel valiantly tried to hold on to the side of the tank. A nail at the bottom of the pool, dragged down with him. The signs of someone slipping into the acid, where the body and the evidence will dissolve; even the most experienced travelers need only a moment’s weakness to disappear.

Quirrel isn’t naive enough to think Lemm wouldn’t feel some small regret. But it would pass. Surely with time, he would come to see it was for the best. After all, Quirrel had only been a loose end at Lemm’s shop, a relic with no story to tell. Better to leave the Relic Seeker with a definitive lie than a vaguely hopeful one, or even an empty page. Truly, what could be more awful for a Relic Seeker than a mystery with no clues, and no neat answer to the questions asked?

Quirrel could think of only one thing worse. To continue to exist in Lemm’s shop, contributing nothing, being nothing, rotting away bored and useless. No matter what Lemm said, Quirrel could only be a burden as he was now, could only be a burden as long as he was still alive, because he had nothing left to offer anyone. His purpose was complete. He had fulfilled his duty to Monomon twice over, and now she was completely gone from the world. Worse than a stag beetle with a broken leg, Quirrel was a stag beetle with no more stagways to run. There was truly, truly, nothing left he could do for anyone.

Once he passed on the Archives to the only bug alive who could fully appreciate what they have to offer, that would be it. Nothing left to offer anyone.

Quirrel can almost taste the relief he will soon feel, finally free of all the weight he has carried since the still air of Hallownest settled on his shell.

Fully unburdened. As the dead should rightfully be.

Lemm is dithering over what he needs and what he doesn’t. He’s erred on the side of too much over not enough, overstuffing and unbalancing his poor old pack. Already Quirel can see Lemm’s forgotten items of vital importance. Even for a trip lasting only a day or two, Quirrel can hardly believe that Lemm is prepared to walk out of his front door without a brush. He is going to regret that in the morning, especially after sleeping on the ground somewhere. Dirt digs into the crevices of your carapace, and though it starts in the morning as a small barely noticeable irritant, the chafing becomes murderous in only a few hours time. Quirrel thinks back almost fondly to a miserable stretch of days where he didn’t have one, and wasteland dust got into absolutely everything.

Looking back on it, that must have been the start of his journey. The Howling Cliffs at his back, and the endless flats ahead. At the time Quirrel only thought of putting one foot in front of the other, until his legs refused to carry him further.

“And you’re sure you can find the Archive again?” Lemm asks absently.

Blindfolded. I could tear out my eyes, carve out my ears, set myself wandering, and The Archive would still pull me back into its halls. It is carved into that nail as it is carved into me.

Quirrel says he’s sure.

Lemm squints at him. “Not going to space out again?”

No, he isn’t.

Lemm’s beady eyes don’t soften, but he does, marginally, seem to deflate. “The fresh air will be good for our heads,” says Lemm, by which Quirrel is sure that Lemm means the fresh air will be good for your head , because Lemm goes on too quickly: “Should I bring two magnifying glasses or four?”

Quirrel desperately resists the urge to laugh. All travelers were once amateurs. Lemm will soon be making this journey regularly. Experience will be as patient a teacher for Lemm as it once was for Quirrel. He won’t be around as tutor. No one will be, as Hallownest stands. Lemm will learn on his own the Archive and the journey to it. Quirrel is truly leaving Lemm a treasure trove of knowledge, and knows no one better to relieve Quirrel of his duty.

“I’m bringing four. Exacting detail is needed in the field! So I have heard.”

Quirrel could correct him. Well, not about exacting detail being very important. That is true. But an initial survey of the Archives should be just that, an initial survey. Quirrel sees Lemm making familiar errors, trying to bring his entire study with him on the road.

But not familiar like his time traveling. More like-- “Madam, please, it is a simple day trip--

“And every single piece of that equipment is vital, my dear student.”

“Forgive me for my impudence, Teacher Monomon, but could we not bottle the water of Blue Lake and return with it? For what reason must we bring the entire chemical analysis kit--

--something older. Harder to grasp.

Lemm will learn. On his own, surrounded by the field of study he loves. Leaving the Archives to Lemm as its caretaker is the best idea this overgrown ghost ever had. Quirrel’s hands rests on the nail and feels the weight of it on his hip, its blade inscribed with the Teacher’s orders.

Soon, I shall not be burdened with such things, Quirrel ponders, with relief as pure and sweet as the water of Blue Lake.

The rocks in his shell are heavy. Worn down and smooth, he can feel their pull downward even as he reaches to collect more. This will more than suffice. After all, Quirrel never learned how to swim. Another piece of this puzzle slotted perfectly into place. Another mystery solved.

He is meant to die here.

A footstep shifts the gravel some feet away. Quirrel stills. Has some infected husk wandered to this shore? If it has, Quirrel will not grant it the satisfaction of his defeat. A death like that, after all that he has done, is repulsive.

But the shifting stops, and Quirrel looks up. He meets the eyes of not a husk, but a bug. They have a very impressive beard, a fishing pole over one shoulder, and the look of someone who knows exactly what Quirrel is doing.

Lemm pulls the drawstring shut. “Ready to go, then?” asks Lemm.

“Ah,” Quirrel says, for lack of anything else.

“What are you doing,” says Lemm, eyes narrowed on the rocks in Quirrel’s hands.

Quirrel nods.

How would Quirrel even begin to explain? Explain that what Lemm sees is only right, only natural? How do you tell a stranger that no, it’s perfectly fine, this is the time and place I was meant to die, please return to fish at some later date?

“Well, come on, then,” says Lemm, impatient as ever. Quirrel lifts his pack soundlessly from the floor. Quirrel cannot explain himself or the rocks in his shell in a way that can be understood. The Blue Lake is not the place for explanations. He doesn’t explain. But he doesn’t object. Without another word, without looking back, he pulls the Relic Seeker’s door shut behind him and looks to the Relic Seeker himself, ready to follow Lemm one last time.

Face to face with the Relic Seeker, up to his neck in rocks on the edge of the Blue Lake, Quirrel is weak for only a moment. Quirrel allows Lemm to pull him away from what he was meant to do.

He won’t make that mistake again.

 

*

 

A silence.

The shop door rings.

A silence.

A knock at the door.

A silence.

The door opens.

The light of the lumaflies lines the shape of a small shadow, dark on the wooden floor. The Knight stands in the crack in the door. The shop stands empty and still to their equally empty and still stare. The tabletops and relic-shelves taste of dust-sweepers, the floor amiably smooth from a thousand steps, the chairs well-used, groaning, the tools in their kits speaking fondly of hurried but careful hands.

The Knight’s footsteps are as soft as the city shadow. Their cloak does not trail across the floor, but whispers all the same. They circle the room. Then they circle it again. They peer into the backroom, out windows, under the desks.

There is nobody here.

There are weaver-silk papers scarred over with Lemm’s handwriting. The ink and its watery minerals are soaked deep in the weaver threads; not fresh; old words. A few cracked geodes here and there (soul oozing from the open wounds), the Relic Seeker’s tools still lodged in their guts. The Relic Seeker’s dishes, cold in their racks, wiped clean and dripping with the sound of forks and knives.

There’s nothing of Quirrel’s in the whole shop.

But there’s a spot sunken deep into the wood by the door, where the taste of foreign soil lays thick. (Dry. Not enough soul.) The air still longs to move where Quirrel used to be. It meanders and strays but doesn’t linger; and as the Knight follows, they find the window pane clouded with a thousand gazes, in and out, want and resignation.

There, on the floor at the base of the window, is a cleaning cloth.

Tastes forgotten. Left in a rush. Tastes like metal. Marred by bug blood, but mostly clean steel. Oily. (Lots of soul. Old soul.) The blood has left the imprint of Quirrel’s nail’s engravings, the reverse lettering of a language nobody knows.

The Knight picks it up.

The shop is still empty.

They stand there for an age, and then an age longer, and they neither tire nor breathe nor mind the wait. But they think that Quirrel might be unnerved to see them standing in the middle of the shop like that, or that maybe when Quirrel comes back, he might like to sit and talk with the Knight, like they used to. So, slowly, with the cloth still in their hands, they ease themselves onto the couch at the far corner of the shop, where the shadows are thickest and warmest, where they found Quirrel that first day and waited for Quirrel to wake up from his long, long dream. There they stay, to the sound of the patient rain. They are waiting for Quirrel to come back from his long, long journey. They are very certain that they will see Quirrel again.

Chapter Text

Come, Quirrel.”

 

*

 

The pale pink light of Fog Canyon filters into the mailroom through the crack in the open door, interacting strangely with the bronze metal that made up the majority of the Archive. The mail room is sterile and empty. The air is still, even for Hallownest. But despite the still air, there is no dust. There is no smell of stale air. The mail room is clean and well preserved, from what Quirrel can see, as if the staff only just stepped out.

The door to the mailroom groans and catches partway through the motion. Quirrel pushes harder, only for it to jam again. This time Lemm leans his weight to help, and together they manage to push the door just barely wide enough for Lemm to squeeze his head through.

Lemm harrumphs. “Can’t say I’m very impressed.”

Quirrel turns sharply back to Lemm.

“What? It’s an empty room! Forgive me for not being awed!”

Quirrel could explain, at least, that this is a side entrance that Quirrel chose because the main entrance was sure to be full of infected uomas and oomas. He could say something about how a Relic Seeker of all bugs should know to look beyond the immediate surface of a thing to find its true value.

Is that you, Quirrel?

Quirrel pauses. A short silence, and then Quirrel shoves the door open the rest of the way, picks up his bag, and forges ahead into the mailroom, unconsciously taking a wide berth around the center of the room to avoid the sorting desk that is no longer there.

Lemm walks straight through where the sorting desk used to be. “How did you know about that entrance, if you didn’t use it when you were here recently?”

Quirrel shrugs.

Without the lights of the lanterns, the only thing illuminating the long halls of offices and classrooms is the palest, weakest light of Fog Canyon beyond. Through distant windows and glass rooms, the pink bubbles throw off their acidic glow, compounding their individual low light into one of the brightest places in Hallownest. The walls of the Archive diminish that glow, reducing it down to being just barely enough to navigate by. Quirrel considers lighting a torch, more than once, but ultimately can’t work up the motivation. He doesn’t need it to navigate by, after all. And it doesn’t seem right to bring more light here.

Lemm has fallen about a half step behind him, eyes combing over everything as Quirrel’s pace keeps steady. “The texts weren’t exaggerating then. It’s practically a university.”

That, Quirrel can’t bring himself to let go. “It was the Teacher’s Archive.”

“Well, yes. But names can be misleading. You always have to check over a thing to ensure the name isn’t overly influencing your perspective on the relic. Remind me to tell you about the Black Nail sometime.”

Quirrel says nothing. Lemm, eventually, gives up and shuts his mouth.

The quiet of the offices is aching. There isn’t even the noise of the uomas and oomas, like those that burbled almost pleasantly in the air outside. The only sounds are their quiet steps, and the slight clanking of Lemm’s unbalanced pack.

The desks and chairs had been packed up, moved into more storage friendly positions. The chalkboards were scrubbed clean and blank, the acid displays dimmed and dark. Quirrel could only guess as to why. The Archive was put into hibernation-- after. When he’d already gone.

Quirrel grips the nail tighter. The wrapping creaks on his carapace.

Lemm, for his part, keeps bouncing between watching Quirrel for direction and scanning everything around him. “So well preserved... How did Hallownest do it? None of the normal ravages of time affect their buildings, not even the dust that should rightly be settled over everything. And with so much unattended acid, surely something should have fallen away in all this time, eaten away at some vital foundation—”

“The central acid containers aren’t on this floor. They’re several levels below us. A fair portion of the Archive is below the acid line. And besides, it is harmless to the metal that makes up these walls.”

Undivided attention prickles at the back of Quirrel’s neck. He does not turn to meet Lemm’s eyes.

“Professor!”

Quirrel sighs lightly, and turns to meet a harried-looking TA. “Please, I am no more a professor than you are. But if there is some help I can provide--"

The jerk of the elevator coming to a halt rattles the contents of Lemm’s pack. A quartet of uomas float in the hallway ahead, their cores pulsing with bright orange infection, and its surface sparks with electricity.

Lemm glares at it like the little jellyfish personally spat in his food. “How many of these blasted things are there?”

“Even more in the Archive. They were vital to its operation.”

If Lemm’s stare was a prickle on the back of Quirrel’s neck before, now it has grown into a sharp burning sensation. “You know a lot about this place, Quirrel. Did you explore The Archive, during your last visit?”

It doesn’t sound much like a question. In fact, Quirrel could almost call it an accusation. Of what, he isn’t quite sure. It isn’t as though Lemm has shared much about his past, definitely no particulars. Besides, what Quirrel had or hadn’t seen is not going to matter very soon.

Have you come?” Quirrel hears, in a soft, feminine voice. “At last?

Quirrel gently moves an uoma aside, in one of the brief phases where it isn’t sparking with deadly force. With the gentle touch, the uoma is shifted without complaint. Quirrel moves forward and doesn’t reply.

At last?” the voice says. “At last?

 

*

 

Down into the familiar depths of the acid stacks. Metal bars built to exacting specifications. Strong enough to hold against conditions a dozen times as strenuous as anything they would have faced in normal operation. As Quirrel wanders the halls of the Archive, he can only ponder how much of engineering effort has kept the Archive as pristine as it has remained after all this time, effort he had likely never known and likely never will know, knowing little of the practice himself. He does remember that Hallownest truly never appreciated its engineers as much as its artists and architecture was an aesthetic competition in itself, but on the far end of history, it seems that the life’s work of its engineers have outlived the artists’.

The art and beauty, all considered more valuable, have been stripped down, packed away, or looted. The long mosaics as tribute to Hallownest’s pursuit of knowledge and learning were scraped off. The tapestries were rolled up. All the filigree has been punctured straight through, ripped like delicate lace. There’s not even a paperweight left on the desks, which stand unused and covered in tiny burns from passing uomas. Nothing is left in the Archives halls but the halls themselves, and the knowledge those walls were built to protect. Quirrel wishes he could say it still resembles a university, but the truth is that the Archives’ stripped bones resemble a bomb shelter far more accurately, built to entomb its contents come rain, hail, fire, or time itself. The Archives are familiar. But it’s not the same.

Lemm keeps staring at everything, although Quirrel suspects it’s not for the same reasons, and he’s hardly seeing what Quirrel is seeing. As stubborn as he is capable of being, it’s nearly impossible to resist the awe of the acid writing your first time, and especially so if that first time was in the stacks. Tubes upon tubes, displaying a truly monstrous amount of text. Describing exactly how much had been almost a game amongst the staff of The Archive, so far as Quirrel remembered. How many books in a tube? How much text in a single tank?

“How many words are there in a book?” says the archivist. There is a podium, but they ignore it. “A weaversilk scroll is clear in its length, as it is clear in its impermanence. Simple humidity can melt ink on a page.”

The archivist’s acid text is, of course, prone to its own delicacies. Although the text itself suffers no weaknesses, the permanence of the text relies upon the glass it resides in.”

Quirrel looks down at the speaking notes the archivist gave him earlier. They’re going off-script for their own thesis presentation, but that’s not Quirrel’s jurisdiction. He’ll take it up with academic support later.

“Nevertheless, the advent of reformed glass construction in the last century has finally given way to reasonable cause to bring acid-text to the forefront as the premium method of storing all valuable history. In the face of the rising incomes for the nouveau riche metropolites, the new functional permanence of acid text dovetailed neatly with new economic resources and a socio-political bend towards the preservation of history, detailed in Figure G. Indeed, the only stronger material at this point would be pure ore, rendering pure ore alloys one of the few materials that could destroy the tanks, and one of the few materials that could potentially surpass acid text in durability--but this is functionally impossible from an economic standpoint, and only theoretically possible for short, individual messages, as seen in the Romantic Era of blacksmithery…”

“How on earth did they sort through this?” Lemm says. “What prevented texts from—mixing?”

“Glass was helpful,” Quirrel replies.

Lemm glares at the acid with a ferocity it did nothing to deserve.

“Are you sure this is the… best system?” the bug asks. Quirrel has already forgotten his name, one of a thousand noble class bugs who enjoy the idea of leaving a mark on history without having to do any of the required effort. So many of those types give geo to the Archive, Quirrel can hardly be expected to keep track.

“This text will outlast any of us--”

“—Quirrel!”

“No need to shout,” says Quirrel. “I’m right here, and can hear you just fine.”

Lemm’s eyebrows draw together. His mouth pinches. He gives Quirrel a long, unhappy silence for an answer, and in that moment, Quirrel is certain that he, once upon a time, had given Monomon that exact expression, after she’d accepted her position as Dreamer but had not yet learned to stop speaking of future plans she would never be able to do, and Quirrel realized before she did that she was saying an untrue statement but could not say so because he, too, wanted what she said to be true.

Eventually, Quirrel can’t hold Lemm’s gaze. He looks away.

“Well. At any rate. I said,” Lemm says, “that we should stick together. I didn’t know this place was this dangerous. Any one of these rotten uomas could blow us up.”

“What a way to go,” says Quirrel mildly. (It might be faster than dissolving in the acid, actually.)

Lemm grunts. “I refuse to kick the bucket because we got separated and I tripped into a jellyfish in your absence.”

“Ah, it’s your own fate you’re worried for.”

“That’s not—”

“Fog Canyon is the safest place you’ll find in Hallownest,” says Quirrel. “All it requires is patience, a slow step, and caution. Nothing here will hunt you down and kill you. It is easy to learn to traverse alone. Indeed, you could walk around the Archive without a weapon at all. You live in a city far more dangerous than the canyon. The Archive is hardly a place that requires a guard.”

When Quirrel looks up, Lemm not only has that exact same expression, but he looks like he desperately wants to say something, only that he doesn’t know how to say it, or even what to say. Which is too bad, because whatever Lemm is thinking right now, it only counts if he actually manages to say it, and sometimes not even then.

“This way, then,” says Quirrel.

Are you here?

Slowly, they enter the hallways that run through the tall forest of tubes. Not a single one rattles. Their fixings to the floor are firm, even after all this time. Many of them are broken, and their glass shards glitter in the dim lighting; when Lemm raises a lumafly lantern, the shards flirtatiously flash their sharp edges. Several walkways are drenched in old acid, their text unreadable and unrecoverable. Like what they say about spilled milk, or spilled blood. The gutters along the walkway sides gurgle as mangled text slides into its maw, siphoning away the garbage and refuse, the wasted words, the useless books.

“And all of this just sitting here,” Lemm says softly. (A good sign. That’s a thinking tone of voice.) “All of this history, compiled in a single place, not going anywhere at all…”

“This is the Archive,” Quirrel agrees. “Its purpose was—well, to archive. To lock knowledge in place, carve it in stone, to preserve.” He brushes a tube as they go past; it rings lightly to the tune of the acid level within. “Important work,” he says gently. “Vital work. But in isolation it leads to nothing. History is only important because it is so closely tied to the present.”

“An Archive is nothing but a grave if the words it has aren’t read,” says Lemm. It sounds more like a continuation of Quirrel’s line of thought than his own sentiment, as if Lemm wants to trace Quirrel’s logic from the inside. Whether or not this means Lemm will come to agree with him, Quirrel doesn’t know.

“The Archive was made for one purpose; with purpose comes use; with use comes a conditional state of being: it must be used to be useful. Although its use is innate, it must be used to fully have its own use.”

Ah, there’s that look on Lemm’s face again. “Use,” Lemm mutters. “Useful. Used. Useless.”

Quirrel isn’t having that conversation again. “Look for yourself,” says Quirrel, gesturing at the tubes. “This is nobody’s knowledge anymore. It is left only for Relic Seekers. All yours—if you can read it.”

“That sounds like a challenge.”

Quirrel,” comes the voice.

“Whether or not it is, the Archive depends upon it,” Quirrel replies.

Lemm squints up at the ghostly-green ceiling. Quirrel never thought he’d see the Relic Seeker in this light; as if Lemm were permanently affixed to the deep blues and soft lamps of the City of Tears and would cease to exist if he walked into the sea-foam underwater of the Archive. “It’d be a shame if this place fell,” he says slowly. “But it wouldn’t be the end of the world, I don’t think. Even the end of the world wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe I’ll renovate the place.”

“Secondary outlet for the Relic Seeker’s business?”

“Maybe. But it’d also make a heck of a water park.”

Quirrel chokes. Lemm, for the first time in weeks, snickers into his own beard.

“Well, whatever happens, might as well give this text-nonsense a shot first,” he says, and squints at the nearest one. “Let’s see here… Ogrim… a Knight… O-stop? Ch? Thir? Endthink? Hmph! Watch the door for me, would you?” Lemm tells Quirrel, half-absorbed already. “Admission? Ceremony? Ah! This must be a record of the knighting ceremony, when the youngest of the Five Great Knights was formally admitted… Yes, I’ve got the advantage; I know what the order of events were and the words are hardly so dramatically changed, so it’s only the syntax left to be derived...”

Already Lemm’s sour face is melting away, replaced by fascination. He glances downwards at the proper display, and Quirrel can see him working out the interface already. Relic Seeker Lemm is already understanding this system, and Quirrel hasn’t had to say a word.

“I’ll keep a lookout,” says Quirrel. He places one hand on the handle of his nail.

Lemm waves a hand. “Yes, yes. Constant vigilance and the like. Stay safe. Remember to come back.”

The Relic Seeker deserves a better farewell than this clumsy exit. He’ll kick himself later, realizing that he’d let his last moments with Quirrel slip by, and he wasn’t even paying attention. And for that matter, Quirrel thinks that Lemm deserves to hear some proper goodbye from him now, since he can’t both leave a note and fake an accidental death. But instead he only thinks about Lemm telling him, We should stick together, and Quirrel hadn’t even been there to hear him properly, head lost in the sunny clouds. Courtesy for courtesy. Perhaps Lemm could not be said to have ever known the ghost haunting his shop, already long dead, waiting to return to the Archive where it died. Nothing whatsoever was gained during Quirrel’s stay in Lemm’s shop. Nothing whatsoever will be lost.

But still.

“Thanks,” says Quirrel, and means it.

Lemm waves his hand again distractedly, dismissively. Quirrel waves his hand in goodbye as he goes, and walks with purpose. Like he once did on the roads of the Wastes, Quirrel travels, for the last time, to find the heart of what it is he longs for.

 

*

 

Is that you, Quirrel?” comes the voice, just as Quirrel begins to see the corpses.

Oomas and Uomas, their bells shredded, lie on the metal floor. Scorch marks from ooma core’s dramatic vengeance are visible along the walls, and the smell of infection’s taint is thick in the air. Glass tubes of acid surround him, all the displays Monomon once used, all her knowledge written in her own shorthand. A few have been shattered, and Quirrel steps carefully around the remains of those texts.

His fingers trail absently along the glass as he walks. He missed the feeling, of acid buzzing with information. The hum it makes against the glass is subtle, but Quirrel feels it as intensely as he’s ever felt anything. The light of Fog Canyon has been overtaken by the pale green of the Archive’s own acid, and as Quirrel side steps the dissolving bodies of the Archive’s most loyal protectors, he feels a certain kinship.

The only way into Monomon’s chamber is through Uumuu’s. This only made sense; what use was a guard that could be avoided by taking a back entrance? As Quirrel walked through its chamber, he thought of cutting through Uumuu’s bell, hitting that one specific point of weakness he knew about but was unable to fix, providing The Knight their much needed opportunity to strike at Uumuu’s delicate cores—

They fight with such cold, calculated ferocity, hopping nimbly between the platforms and along the walls, saving their strikes until Quirrel has provided them an opening. There is no panic, no scramble, no unsure action, only the calculated movements dancing between the bolts of electricity. They turn to watch him now, as though they sense Quirrel will see an opening before even he does.

Their mask is as blank as ever, revealing nothing. Their eyes are the deepest of pits. In that moment, Quirrel catches some small inkling of what he is aiding, what lies behind that mask. Somewhere in there is a death count that Monomon once tried to destroy. Somewhere in there is a death count that may have died, but still lives; may have forgotten who they are, but still does not forgive--Uumuu’s body is lying, deflated, in the acid. Floating along the surface, its cores cut to ribbons and drifting in the sad remains of its bell. The stench of death is so thick it covers even the infection and acid.

All of Monomon’s knowledge, contained within those cores, is gone. Impossible to recover. Even in the best of circumstances Quirrel could only regain fragments of the reams and reams of text Uumuu’s cores had held. The Archive itself still stands, but to further Monomon’s plan Quirrel was forced to cut down his own work.

Quickly,” says the voice, and now Quirrel follows in earnest.

The center of the Archive sits as it did before, a few months and a lifetime ago. It squats in its stolen position, placid and smug in the spot it took from Monomon the Teacher. Its theft is even more complete than before; Monomon’s chamber reduced down to a shell meant to contain the tank, her possessions and works all packed neatly away into storage.

There is no construction, now. No noise of saws, or hammers, or calls of workers echoing in the space. Monomon’s chambers are quiet, empty but for the smallest hints of bubbling. No air shifts with the gentle currents of Monomon’s movements, no one speaks with the awed hush of a student to a great master, no glass tube clinks against another, no pen scratches out hasty notes against weaversilk.

Instead, the empty cavernous space echoes with only Quirrel’s small footsteps. The ugly, bare metal of hastily built supports gouge out the walls, standing like guards from some invading army, ensuring that the spoils of war are only stolen by the proper thieves. The light hangs dim and powerless in the air, shafts only bright enough to show the slow drift of dust. The shelves are empty. The desks are bare. Hollowed out.

He can recall the edges of hours upon hours in this chamber, talking with Monomon about so much; pleasant and light hearted conversations, serious discussions of the Archive’s logistics, enthusiastic arguments about this or that project. But only the edges. The impressions. The details escape him, swept away like sand in the wind over the Wastes beyond. A ghost of an Archivist, floating through this place made unfamiliar to him by the steady march of time; he walks alongside his own ghost until he reaches, at last, the door to Monomon’s innermost room.

It has been so long...

Quirrel pauses at the broken door, haunting the threshold of the room where the tank was made all those years ago, where the tank still stands surrounded the many platforms where construction workers once stood to build it. Students and faculty were supposed to knock before they entered, but there’s no one inside. There’s no point, now.

And still, as if in a dream, he knocks softly.

Come in,” says the voice.

He pushes open the door. His footsteps echo along the metal walkway until he clears the tunnel. He looks up, as he has so many times before, up towards the high ceiling where Monomon could often be found, lost in thought amongst her many tubes, and where the tank was built to keep her. Even now, the tank glows with its sea-foam green.

There, suspended in her tank above him, is Monomon. Her mask-eyes are kind, fond, and warmly orange.

Welcome back,” says Monomon.

 

*

 

“—And there is where they’ve hidden all the records on artifacts! Tricky devils, but not tricky enough! Just because I outsmarted the need for fieldwork doesn’t mean old Relic Seeker Lemm forgot!”

Lemm’s voice echoes in the stacks, carried farther than he is used to. His shop had no space for his voice to travel to, and the City of Tears consumed all echoes in the sound of rain. For the first time in a while, Lemm pauses in his frantic session of research and reading.

Wasn’t Quirrel supposed to have come back by now?

The shadows of the stacks stretch high overhead, the tall ribs of the hallway extending beyond him and out of sight.

“Quirrel?” he calls.

There is no response. Lemm looks back at the tube in his hands. Replaces it back on the shelf. “Quirrel?” he calls again, and again there is no response.

Even though Lemm knows, logically, that Quirrel is in this building somewhere with him, Lemm is struck with the sudden conviction that he is alone. And that for the first time since moving to Hallownest, solitude might, in fact, not be what Lemm wants.

 

*

 

My dearest student,” says Monomon.

She presses a long tendril to the glass around her. As Quirrel walks to the foot of her tank, he thinks, vaguely, that she’s so much larger than he remembers. Her membrane shines, now, as if from the inside, rather than the soft light of reflection; he also thinks she’s brighter than he remembers.

She towers over him. Her mask seems to be the size of the moon, and just as smoothly flawless. Her face looms forward, so much more vast than he, to come down to his height.

“Madam,” says Quirrel in greeting, as he always has.

At my side at last,” she says. Her voice is light and cheerful. Quirrel can hear her smile. “How I’ve missed you. You took your time coming here, didn’t you?

“I may have been deterred for a time.”

For a ‘time’,” she repeats, amused. “I've never known you to be so tardy.

“The Relic Seeker moves at his own schedule,” says Quirrel, as if he had nothing to do with his utter failure to remove himself from the Relic Seeker’s shop and return to the Blue Lake. “But I'm here, now.”

You are. Thank goodness. Come, then.

Quirrel doesn’t stake his nail to the ground this time. He’ll have to take it with him, if he’s going to stage what happens here as an accident. He hops up to the top of the tank. But instead of opening the hatch right away, Quirrel catches himself looking up at the ceiling, as if he were here to sit and admire the view with a friend. Below, Monomon’s pale face peers up at him, awkwardly angled around the hatch. She’s curious, several of her tendrils pressing against the glass like fingers, like she used to peer at strange specimens Quirrel brought in from the field, except that with how large she is now, it’s more difficult to find a part of the glass that isn’t covered in her tendrils. The tank is barely enough to contain all of her. The width of her tendrils, now, are nearly three times the width of Quirrel, and look heavy enough to crush him, as if she’s grown bloated with the acid where she soaks.

Just as he did all those decades ago, Quirrel tugs at the lever that will undo the hinges at the top of the tank. “Aren’t we glad that I insisted on those hinges?” Monomon says.

“And here I thought you insisted on them so I could sever your mask from your neck,” says Quirrel.

Quirrel finishes lifting the hatch they both fought so hard for. As it lifts, metal groans against itself, moved for only the second time in who knows how many years. When Quirrel peers down into the open tank, he is met with Monomon’s concerned mask. 

What’s wrong, my dear student?” Monomon asks. “You look rather unhappy to see me.

Quirrel appraises her from across the way. The acid doesn’t ripple at all; Monomon’s huge face, shining like a massive white coin in a wishing well, is unmarred by ripples or distortion. He’s never been so aware of his weight on the solid ground. The edge of the tank is two inches from the tips of his feet.

“I am tired,” he admits.

There is no better place or time to be tired,” Monomon replies, as serene as the acid she floats in.  “You can rest, here. This is where you’ve always belonged.

“In this haunted building,” he says tonelessly. “In this grave of Hallownest’s achievements.”

With me,” Monomon replies.

Quirrel has spoken with Monomon enough to know how this goes. He hears from some other decade one of their long, passionate arguments about some subject everyone’s forgotten about completely, some miniscule academic detail that nobody cares for anymore, as they talked deep into the night at equal measure. He hears himself reciting his own field notes to Monomon bright and early in the morning, and Monomon’s contemplative, attentive silence as he described the wondrous depths of Greenpath that he’d recorded.

This will be neither one of those conversations. Instead, he hears some echo of his own silence from a century ago, when Monomon gave him his nail and spoke of glory and a greater cause, and Quirrel just looked at her, mute, without the words to defy her, but without the white lies to agree with her and without the will to accept with honesty. He remembers that she asked him to speak his mind, as if that was so simple a task.

We were forced apart for far too long,” says Monomon. “You’ve done so well—everything that I've asked and more. I require nothing else of you. My mission that necessitated our separation is long over. Archivist Quirrel, you have earned your rest. Your place is at my side.

“Even though you are gone from this world,” says Quirrel.

Especially so. My use for you is done. Come, Archivist.

Quirrel doesn’t move. He just sits there, cross-legged on the edge of the tank and staring into the acid, like he did back at the Blue Lake shore when he stared into the water. The acid pops and fizzes. Monomon’s face rises, huge and silent, to just beneath the surface.

This is it, then.

“Has my life been of use to you, Madam?” he asks.

Very much so.

Quirrel stares down at the nail, as though it was a foreign object, something just handed to him. He can’t bring himself to decipher the writing, to reach for the part of himself that eagerly learned the Teacher’s shorthand, that devoted himself fully to her cause and her Archive.

“I’m sorry that Hallownest fell,” says Quirrel.

The acid shifts as Monomon moves closer. “You have a good heart, it would seem, to mourn a corpse so cold.

“Hardly.” Quirrel runs a hand down the nails blade, feelings its edge. “The sacrifices Hallownest took still linger to this day—no, the sacrifices are still happening. Despite your plans, despite the machinations of the Pale King, despite all the pain and martyrdom, despite a number of children so horrific you personally destroyed the record…” Quirrel leans back to stare at the ceiling. “None of it mattered, did it?”

I had to try.

(She had to try? Hadn’t they done it together?) “I was tasked to try on your behalf, then.”

And to only you would I entrust such a task,” says Monomon. “I have had your service from the start. Do I not?

“Always, Madam,” Quirrel hears himself say. “For anything.”

And is this not what I have asked of you? Your life to enact my will?

“It was.”

And did you not agree to what I asked?

Quirrel looks back down at Monomon. He leans over the edge of the tank to meet her light-filled eyes through the acid. “In my last moments, Madam,” he says, “do me the courtesy of not pretending you asked.”

Monomon’s eyes glow with shifting, changing, rippling orange light. The acid’s stillness only highlights their movement in her mask.

“I could have no more refused you than a bug could refuse the throes of infected madness, or the rain in the City of Tears could refuse to fall,” Quirrel says. There’s something burning sickly hot in his chest; his own words taste like bile. “I could have no more refused you than I could have ceased to love you. And you knew that. You knew that.”

Monomon sinks down into the tank, just enough to dim her eyes.

“And you asked it of me anyway. For nothing. For a shell of a place the fell to rot anyway, for the mad ambitions of a tyrant who dreamed of immortality, for the foolish notion that an entire Kingdom could be archived.

“You sent me out into the Wastes, obliterated half my life, and remade the ashes to your will. You gave me a nail and your mask, and I wore them. I wore them like the infected wear glowing pustules and orange eyes. Your signature on a mindless tool. Your very own husk.”

Monomon drifts lower still, yet her voice rings clear as a crystal bell in Quirrel’s ears. “Was it truly so horrendous? Truly so terrible?” It sounds to his ears like a question, but to his mind an accusation.

“No, Madam,” Quirrel says, shifting his gaze towards the dark ceiling above. “It was wonderful. My time wandering was vibrant, and fascinating, and everything that I had ever wanted from my tutelage under you. But it was you who was not content with that. It was not enough that you stripped me of myself and adorned me with your colors. Teacher, you asked even more of your student yet.”

Quirrel stands, too riled up and furious to sit any longer. “You pulled your student back. Reeled me in, a fish on a line, or a pet on a leash. You sent me out into the Wastes and as I grew fond of them you dragged me back into your service. What I thought was my own became yours.

Quirrel laughs, harshly. “I could have been an unknowing tool. Condemned to blissful ignorance, to have holes in my past forever unexplored… what a remarkably appealing notion compared to what you have made of me now.”

What, my dear student?

Quirrel’s gaze snaps back to Monomon. She is directly under the surface, only the thinnest film of acid between her and air. Her mask is all encompassing.

What have I made you?

Quirrel’s chest burns, hotter than ever. Fire consumes his mind and his heart, but he does not feel confused. He is not lost in the throes of memory, or surrendered to anger impossible to steer. Quirrel is sharpened, pointed at a singular target.

“You made me useless.”

Monomon has the gall to not even flinch. Quirrel’s fury redoubles. The nail she gave him is in his grip, drawn and ready.

“You made me a tool. A fancy blade to oppose an impossible enemy. You twisted me into something that could only be of service to you and your Archive.”

Slowly, the tip of Quirrel’s nail drifts to point directly between Monomon’s eyes.

“You made me yours, of you, for you.”

His hand is shaking. His throat hurts. His eyes burn.

“And then you died.”

Quirrel feels her watching him, feels her quietly observing and that gaze has weight, as heavy as any shadow or regret. Even though she’s dead and gone. Even after all this time. 

“Am I to greet you warmly?” Quirrel says, quietly, looking down at his own feet. “Welcome a death of my choosing in favor of a life I could not? Enjoy that my travels were never penned by my hand, but written out decades ago under your glass?”

It does not matter.

Quirrel freezes.

“What?”

Monomon repeats herself sternly: “It does not matter. What’s done is done. You are mine, and I made you mine, and now I am dead. What use does this anger have? You are acting like a spoiled child.

Her voice is cold and heavy around him, ice water, pure grave soil. He can’t breathe.

There is no denizen of Hallownest who does not regret their hand in this tragedy,” she continues, as if lecturing a stubborn undergraduate who refuses to see sense. “But your regrets are meaningless when there is nothing you can change. After today, Archivist, you won’t even have an Archive to live for. The Relic Seeker will preserve my greatest works in your stead. You could not choose to live even if you wanted to.”

All of a sudden, Quirrel thinks:

 

 

Lemm is on the ledge, looking over with distaste. His beard swings past his feet and obscures his vision, which probably doesn’t help his sudden aversion to heights. “Just jump!” Quirrel calls. “It doesn’t do to think too much about it!”

“I could break something! I’m not exactly young anymore!”

Quirrel laughs. “Neither am I!”

“But you’re crazy!”

“Then hurry up and jump before your crazy housemate kicks you off that ledge!”

“If there’s a—rope or something,” Lemm says. “A ladder—perhaps a convenient nearby staircase—”

“I’m coming up there to kick you off!” Quirrel warns.

“—alright alright alright I’m going!”

Lemm turns around, and slowly, slowly, slowly lowers his leg on to one of the many mushrooms covering the ledge. He taps it no less than three times with the tip of his foot, as though the fungus could decide at any moment to stand up and walk away, or perhaps burrow into the ledge beneath. The existence of the mushroom established, Lemm takes the bold strategy of actually lowering his weight onto it, one ounce of himself at a time, over a long enough period for Quirrel to count two score.

He then repeats this process six times on five different mushrooms, plus one more to put his foot on solid ground.

“Congratulations,” says Quirrel. “You came down a…” He sizes the ledge up. “A five foot jump.”

Lemm wheezes like he’s just fought a duel for his life. “Don’t sass me, old man. What’s your rush?”

“There’s roads to travel, Relic Seeker! Places to see, wonders to find! And they won’t come to us!”

“And if they’re so sedentary, they can wait for me to get there, thank you. Aren’t you the one always going on about taking time to enjoy the road?”

Quirrel can’t help but smile. “Balance in all things, of course, Relic Seeker. The joy of the way there goes hand in hand with its destination. In this case, the Archive.” Quirrel pauses. “Specifically, I mean that I don’t think either of us packed enough supplies for our current pace of one mile per ten years.”

Lemm kicks at Quirrel’s shin, but he misses. “Don’t exaggerate. It’s far closer to one mile per five years.”

Quirrel laughs again. “At least seven!”

“Six and a half! Final offer!”

“We’ll still be traveling for the rest of our lives at that rate!” Quirrel exclaim. And the instant he says it, he thinks, for half a moment, the tiniest fragment of time:

 

 

He could live with that.

 

 

And Quirrel steps away from the edge.

Archivist?” says Monomon.

He takes another step. And another.

Archivist! What do you think you’re doing?”

Quirrel turns his back on her and, carefully, jumps down to the platform below. The metal clatters beneath his feet.

You dare to refuse my call?

Quirrel stands there, his back to the tank, nail held in shaking, white knuckle grip.

You have no right to refuse me--not then, and even moreso not now. A knight without a cause; a ghost without a reason; an archivist without an archive; a filthy relic without the good sense enough to die before it was collected. And nobody could choose a life without reason.

Quirrel turns, slowly, back towards the tank.

Monomon’s mask stares back at him, furious and twisted, huge, eclipsing him completely. Her tendrils swell and press against the glass in seething knots, writhing; the entire tank is full of her, blotting out all light.

Without me, you are worthless,” she hisses. “And I am long, long gone.

Quirrel flips the nail around, in the reverse grip, the way he likes it. Holds it firm, with all of his resolve.

You are nothing.”

He raised the nail high above his head.

You wouldn’t dare to live—!

Quirrel’s nail blade rips through the filigree weaver-spells.

White light screams. Webs of cracks race across the glass and Quirrel twists the blade, wrenches it hard, digging the blade Monomon gave him deeper into the glass, tearing straight through hundreds of years of lacework and spells. He pulls the blade free, raises it again, brings it down; acid bursts in streams; the image of Monomon’s face splits into jagged halves; he pulls back, raises the blade again, again, again, and the glass breaks and breaks and breaks and—

The glass gives way. The tip of the blade punctures all the way through to the soft liquid inside and Quirrel staggers. Something groans, something shifts; acid spills like blood across his hands—

He pulls the nail free, raises the nail again—

The raw edge of glass shrieks against the metal blade. Fractures are blossoming, meeting each other halfway like pathways across land, a weaver-spell breaking the tank apart from the inside all of Quirrel’s own, and he pulls the blade free—

The glass explodes.

Quirrel staggers backwards as the tank gives way all at once, no longer strong enough to hold the enormous pressure and weight of the acid with such a serious puncture through the architecture. Flying shards rip through his carapace. Acid soaks the walkway and sinks deep into his joints. The entire bottom half of the tank unravels in massive fragments and collapses into the lake below, crumbling into twisted metal and sparkling glass spears to hit the acid in distant splashes.

And then it’s quiet again.

There’s acid on his mask, trying to seep its way onto his face. Dazed, he blinks up at the top half of the tank, still suspended from its supports. The shards drip steadily with leftover acid, like rain, or maybe blood, into the pool below.

“There’s—” He coughs, clears his throat. “There’s nothing wrong with being useless.”

He coughs again. And again. He keeps coughing, and he can’t breathe in the face of the fit. His knees give out under him, the nail drops with a clatter, and he collapses onto the metal floor among the glass and acid.

Quirrel coughs, and hacks, and feels something burning crawling up his throat. He struggles for sips of air in the onslaught, sparks dancing before his eyes, vision swimming, vision fading into… orange?

Something finally comes up. It tastes like fire, as though Quirrel had long ago drank a deep draught of the Archive’s acid, and only now he’s hacking it up into the Archive’s halls again.

It is bright, ugly orange.

Quirrel freezes for half a moment, faced with the reality he had been so studiously ignoring, but the fit is not done with him yet. He vomits up more infection, so much more, enough that the glow of it overtakes the acid. The fits seize him too fully to think about what is happening. All Quirrel can do is ride it out, leaving his own rotten guts at the edge of Monomon’s grave.

Finally, after an eternity, he spits out a last bit of burning orange and gulps down as much air as his lungs can handle. It’s not very much. His lungs still feel like they’re collapsing. His throat is raw, and his eyes still burn.

But he breathes.

That is something.

 

*

 

When Lemm tracks down the outrageous racket echoing through the Archive, he meets Quirrel halfway at the door: Lemm two steps from walking into the Teacher’s chamber, and Quirrel staggering out of it.

“Gods,” Lemm says, voice faint. “What in hell is going on here?”

Quirrel’s cloth hat is nearly in shreds. The acid burns have sunk deep into Quirrel’s shell, deep enough that they’ll never rub out, maybe never heal over. Half his mask has been eaten by the acidity. Long gouges, shallow and deep, streak across his carapace in the after-image of the outward explosion, where the shards caught him as they flew past. His travel bag is entirely missing.

In one bloody hand, Quirrel still holds onto his nail for dear life.

“I’m still alive,” Quirrel replies.

Chapter Text

 

The real danger of travelling is that no matter how prepared you think you are, you never have enough first aid material for what you need and safety is always just a little too far for comfort. Lemm makes the executive decision to return to the City of Tears on the spot. Quirrel won’t die, but Lemm can only do so much with bandages and water, especially with the acid doing gods-know-what to his carapace. If Quirrel has feelings about his wounds, Lemm forgets to notice, which is definitely not a side effect of panicking, because Lemm doesn’t panic and is, in fact, incredibly, outrageously, genuinely very calm.

Lemm is so calm that he doesn’t even allow them to stop at the Relic Seeker’s shop, and instead ushers them directly to the only (operational) hot spring in the City of Tears that he knows of, high up in the abandoned Pleasure House. (Everyone, after all, knows that you can’t have premium-grade medical care without a deep soak in a hot spring’s minerals.) Lemm can’t remember which floor the hot spring is on and gets off at nearly every one to make sure they don’t miss it, cursing under his breath at each wrong floor, making himself even more cranky with each realization that there’s hardly anything useful in any of the rooms. Every stop of the elevator lift is all the same debris of some daily life in another age, not a decent bandage or water jug to be found; even the kitchen is mostly full of mulch and rot.

It’s on second thought that Lemm digs deeper into the kitchen drawers and unearths a very ancient jar of jam and a pickled… something. Something edible, probably. Quirrel pokes his head out of the lift. “Get back in there and be on metaphorical bed rest,” Lemm orders.

“I don’t think the hot spring is in the kitchen, Relic Seeker.”

“Don’t be smart with me. I'm doing you a favor,” Lemm says, pulling out drawers with a vengeance in search of plates and utensils. “Hot spring or no, nobody ever recovered while hungry—"

Lemm pulls out the utensil drawer, which, he realizes two moments too late, has rotted all the way through, and the entire drawer worth of spoons and soggy wood falls out the bottom and scatters across the floor. 

“Oh, never mind,” Lemm snaps. “This bastard city’s good for nothing but one thousand ways to die!” He slams the broken drawer back in its shelf and sweeps up the jam and pickles and marches back to the lift. “Come on, Quirrel! I won’t have you out of that hot spring for one second longer!”

Quirrel, instead, picks up a spoon, which is at first something Lemm figures was rather smart of him, considering that Lemm isn’t keen to eat jam with his fingers. Then Quirrel looks at it oddly, like he’s never seen one before. Gives a funny little hiccup. Spoon still clutched in one hand, eyes crinkled as if in a laugh, Quirrel covers his face and turns away.

 

*

 

“Nailsmith,” she says. “I have a request of you.”

 

*

 

The Nailsmith’s hut is an exercise in solitude. Any bug may approach, in theory, but none are welcome by virtue of the Nailsmith’s utter lack of either hospitality or inhospitality. While the Nailsmith bears no ill will towards any bug, nor any apparent opinion whatsoever, it is difficult to loiter in a house while the Nailsmith continues to toil, single-minded, his entire body bent and twisted to his task like a living, breathing extension of his forge. The Teacher finds it much like her Archives: a location single-mindedly devoted to its task, steeped deep in its practice, irrevocably suited to the sole inhabitant’s tastes. She will never find the Nailsmith’s hut pleasant, but she can recognize a fellow when she meets one.

Because he has been required by the Pale King’s missive, the Nailsmith hears her out with unsympathetic patience—something more akin to a dutiful silence so that he can return better-equipped with instructions and directions to the craft for which he lives. When she finishes, he mulls over her requests with the same dispassion, evaluating not for their worth but for his own ability to complete them. She is, truthfully, unsure what would happen if the Nailsmith sent her away now. She may have a permit from the Pale King and a block of pale ore granted for her use, but looking at the Nailsmith now, she wonders if the Pale King Himself could make the Nailsmith forge a nail he didn’t want to.

“It can be done,” says the Nailsmith, at last. “Artistry is not my forte, but it can be done.”

“I have seen your work. The filigree is nothing unusual.”

“Filigree is one thing,” says the Nailsmith. He draws a beautiful nail of pale ore alloy from behind his forge, where it’d been sitting in its scabbard against the wall, like an unused umbrella. The going rate for such a piece must be hundreds of thousands of geo. He gives it to her one-handed without so much as a second glance. “The designs are merely lines. Closely woven together and extremely delicate lines, of course, but nonetheless straight lines. To replace lines with written language is another beast.”

The Teacher examines the blade herself. Her tendrils are weak compared to the weight of a whole broadsword, but she forces herself to lift it to the light. After a moment, she says, “Despite your claims, there’s weaver silk spun with less finery than this. The delicacy of these lines are so thin and finely-carved that they might as well be invisible from a distance.”

“Did I mishear you? Such degree of fine carving was what you wanted.”

“Would text inscription be possible if the lines were larger? More spread out?”

“That depends on how much text you’d like written on the blade.”

“As much as possible.”

The Nailsmith hums. He has a lovely baritone. “People are saying that to me more and more, nowadays—‘do whatever is possible.’ But I am always unsure what is or isn’t possible, until it is demanded of me, and I am forced to make it happen. And then it is suddenly very possible. Perhaps I should say, I could do it if we used a different metal than pale ore—”

No,” says the Teacher.

“And now I am knowing something of what I must do.”

“I have good reasons,” says the Teacher. “I ask not the impossible for fun or sport. This sword must not break, nor dull, nor falter. I must keep its wielder alive no matter the cost.”

“That is not always a wise ideal,” says the Nailsmith. “Perhaps this nail-wielder—pardon my directness, but it’s not you, is it? You look like you could hardly lift a dagger.” When she shakes her head, he says, “Making a nail to lend?”

“It is not my nail at all. It will belong to a…” She hesitates. Although she knows of the power of words, its power is felt most strongly when those words serve to name a fellow bug. Her student? Her colleague? Her co-conspirator? Her only true friend? (Hers, hers, hers.)

“...Someone I know,” says the Teacher.

“A knight?” says the Nailsmith. The Teacher shakes her head. “A guard? A servant? Hmph. Keep your secrets, then. In the practice of service at the very least, I presume; nobody else would dare pick up a blade for any reason but to serve in this kingdom. At any rate: Perhaps, in the course of his service, this unbreakable nail should do its job too well, and the nail-wielder outlive his lord?”

“And if the owner of this nail is to have no lord whatsoever?”

“Then perhaps the wielder of this nail outlive the Pale King Himself,” says the Nailsmith. “Which would be just the same.”

The Teacher lowers her head. She’s still holding the prototype nail, she realizes, as if she were the knight waiting on her lord. She puts the nail down and stretches her strained tendrils. She mulls over her thoughts—a series of rare and private ones, which she’s never said aloud, not even to her most trusted and favorite student. But if there’s anyone who’d take these words to his grave out of sheer ambivalence, it would be the Nailsmith, and if she cannot say these words to her closest friend, then perhaps she should settle for a stranger. “It is not my place to decide for him,” she says, at last. “Or at least, it will not be my place to decide for him much longer. But if I am permitted to hope, I would rather he live for nothing than die for something.”

The Nailsmith’s beard twitches, but she can’t read his expression. “You are far crueller than the rumors say.”

“Perhaps it is so cruel of me to desire someone I love to live. But I came to request a nail,” says the Teacher. “I did not come to request forgiveness.”

“And at this rate, you won’t even manage to request the nail,” says the Nailsmith briskly. “Only now you are telling me things I need to know. If you tell me about bits and baubles of how the nail should look, I know nothing of what its purpose is, and I cannot make a weapon without knowing what it’s for. Tell me what this nail should do for this ‘someone you know’, and impossibility will not stand between you and all the words you need inscribed on this blade.”

If she had a face to smile with, she would. She settles for a peaceful incline of her mask, and folds her tendrils. She nods.

“So, then, Teacher. What will you say?”

 

*

 

“You will get better and if you die five feet from the hot spring,” says Lemm, “I will kill you myself, personally, with my own two hands.”

Quirrel laughs at him.

“I will! Do not slip, or fall, or get lost somehow, or space out, or do anything except put your body in that water!—Specifically with your head above the water line! I forbid you from drowning in the hot spring that’s supposed to heal you!”

“I won’t, I won’t!”

“You can’t guarantee it,” says Lemm, specifically to mean You can’t guarantee you won’t space out like you have been for the last several weeks, just as Quirrel undoes the holster on his belt, carefully lays his nail down on the side of the bath, dips a hand into the water to test the temperature, and otherwise continues his truly impressive streak of not fading out and falling in face first like a drunken aspid that has more or less carried on the entirety of their trip back from the Archives.

Lemm squints.

“Fine. Stay there,” says Lemm, and goes to set down their packs on the bench nearby, which isn’t especially drier than floor, but it’s mostly about the principle of the thing. He snatches a towel off a nearby rack—can’t possibly be clean, but clearly it was of good make to survive this long and is probably cleaner than anything they dragged in from their mud-covered traveling. He leaves Quirrel’s nail where Quirrel put it. He never stops listening to the sound of the water, like he could track Quirrel’s movements with them; he’s weirdly hyper aware of Quirrel’s every motion, as if some part of Lemm is braced for tragedy to strike the moment Quirrel is out of his sight. He certainly has a consistent track record of exactly that. But when Lemm turns around, Quirrel is still there, and hasn’t even gotten himself killed in the meantime. Miraculous feat, really.

“Alright, then. Come here,” Lemm says, holding out a hand. Quirrel offers up his right arm without complaint, giving him the biggest and most easily accessible burn. Quirrel’s injuries are partially healed, and that’s the problem. Lemm can already imagine the weakened shell spots, prone to breakage and infection, that such poorly tended wounds would produce; just looking at Quirrel’s wounds in Lemm’s hand makes him nauseous. Lemm dunks the towel in the hot spring and shakes all the dust out. “This... is going to be unpleasant.”

“I can scarcely imagine whatever healing properly requires would be more unpleasant than the initial injury.”

“Oh, don’t be smart.” Lemm takes the towel in firm grip and braces on Quirrel’s arm. “Are you ready?”

“Isn’t that the medical care equivalent of an old wives’ tale?”

“Yeah, and Hallownest’s wives spent a good amount of time either as guards, soldiers, or assassins, so I figure they know what they’re talking about.” Lemm doesn’t give him any more warning and starts scrubbing at Quirrel’s wound, which has already been softened by the warm water, and gets it bleeding again. Quirrel hardly even flinches, but Lemm can see the pain in the tension returning to Quirrel’s shoulders.

“I must say,” Quirrel says, voice taut, “your experience with tending wounds surprises me.”

Lemm feels like he should be offended, but in truth, he can’t be. He cuts a very specific figure, and that figure isn’t a nurturing or tender type.

“I wasn’t born in Hallownest, you know. I journeyed here, same as—”

Lemm stops. Same as you? He thinks, Truly? Again, he thinks of Quirrel in the Archive, confidently speaking and even more confidently walking, familiarity in his every step. Even in his dazes, he walked directly to the stacks.

Quirrel watches him, with a strange hesitance.

“... Just because it has been a while doesn’t mean I forgot everything I learned on the way.”

Quirrel laughs. “Did you often have to treat—” he hisses, as Lemm gets at a sore spot on his shoulder, “acid burns, on your journey?”

“No,” Lemm says, “but it’s all the same, isn’t it?”

“What, medical care?”

“Obviously not all medical care! But wounds, they’re practically the same, aren’t they? Wash them out, close them up, eat lots of carapaces to help your own.”

“I do not know enough to argue with you, and yet the memory of every healer I have ever met is screaming that I should.”

How many healers have you met? is the obvious follow-up question, but Lemm can’t bring himself to ask it. Something about receiving an answer feels like inviting untruths. More lies by omission. More things for Quirrel to deflect with jokes. Which is Quirrel’s right, of course, since Quirrel is only a stranger who lives in Lemm’s house, and it’s not like Quirrel asked to be there, but. Still.

The silence hangs. Lemm methodically scrubs out Quirrel’s injuries. They’re nothing life-threatening, even if Lemm had let them be, but they’re no paper-cuts either. A few will definitely scar, and Quirrel will have to see a professional about his mask.

Lemm is not a bug who feels the urge to speak when he has nothing to say. And what could he say? What questions would he ask? Quirrel has been so content to let Lemm spin and flail in the dark, only offering hints, oblique references, and metaphors. That was when he was offering anything at all. Who’s to say that just because he is unprepared in this moment, that he won’t have his walls back up the next?

It’s not that Lemm doesn’t understand. It was Lemm who declined, and still does and will again if Quirrel asks, to elaborate on where he came from before Hallownest. Lemm likes his privacy and his closed doors and, like anyone else, has a list of things he’d rather not bring up again. It’s because he understands that he—

“My, you’ve become a loud thinker,” says Quirrel.

“I’m peeved because I’ve come all this way and instead of having a good soak, I’m here making sure you don’t die.”

“Thank you,” says Quirrel, quite sincerely for someone who’s spent an inordinate amount of time explaining not a single thing to Lemm. “You really didn’t have to.”

“Thank me when you survive. There’s still a chance you and your open wounds will catch an infection and die while I’m not looking.”

Quirrel seems to find that immensely entertaining, gods damn him.

They put the bandages on as best as Lemm knows how, but then after that, all there is to do is wait and let the hot springs do what they can. (The healing properties of hot springs, too, is something of an ‘old wives tale’, but, well, Hallownest wives and all that.) Quirrel tries to persuade Lemm to get in with him, and frankly Lemm wishes that he could, but the heat of the bath is getting to him, practically boiling Lemm in his shell.

Don’t move,” Lemm warns. “You’ve got a lot of repairs to make on your shell. Sit there and get to work. And eat that jam while you’re at it!”

Quirrel sighs and sinks slightly lower into the water. “Right away, Healer.”

Lemm grunts, and fully intends to walk away. He has a half formed notion about going back to the kitchen, seeing if the corpses Hallownest so helpfully provided for them had salvageable chitin. Every bug with half a mind to think knew that the best way to heal up your shell was to feed it other shells. They’d need a thorough washing, of course, with some alcohol, but if any place in the City of Tears was going to have strong drinks—

Lemm’s foot brushes against Quirrel’s nail. He looks down at it, and in the light Lemm catches a line of text on the blade.

CH-GREEN-OH-PATH-PILGRIM-WORSHIP-O-ACID-O-EMPTY-THR-GOD-RESPECTED

He stops.

Lemm knew, in an academic sort of sense, that Quirrel’s nail was covered in Archive Shorthand. It was the whole reason he asked Quirrel if he knew the way to the Archive to begin with. To forget that would be ludicrous.

Yet, Lemm thinks as he picks it up, there is a world of difference between knowing that Quirrel’s nail in covered in a certain kind of text, and being able to decipher that text. Before, Lemm had only seen snatches of poorly scribbled notes in wanderer’s journals, or the densely packed, almost impossible to read inscriptions on the nail itself. Hardly enough to translate from.

But now, Lemm had been in the Archive. He’d seen how the characters flowed downwards in almost, but not quite, straight lines, before being displayed for easier reading. Seeing that, Lemm sees the words streaming down Quirrel’s nail in exactly the same way. It’s almost frightening how easy it is, as though the words are so desperate to be understood they’re cheating and slipping Lemm the answers without any work on his part.

His fingers itch for a notebook, a pen, a proper work surface. The nail is so filled with text, Lemm can only guess how much information has been crammed onto it. He guesses at least five large pages of his small, neat handwriting, and suspects he is underestimating significantly. Lemm wishes he was at his desk, wearing proper gloves, so he could study the text without damaging the nail in the safety of his shop—

—where Quirrel would be. And the last time Lemm tried to take a look at Quirrel’s nail, Quirrel made a joke at his expense, and Lemm is none too keen to repeat the performance.

Lemm looks back. Quirrel stares back at him.

“No need to look so guilty,” says Quirrel. “You can read it, if you like.”

“I don’t need another joke at my expense, thank you.”

“No jokes. It’s written in Archive shorthand, is it not? You’ve learned a bit of it. Why not give it a shot?”

Things unsaid hang thick in the air. Lemm can feel them crawling on his shell, all the thoughts Quirrel has been hiding. But, for the first time, it feels as though Quirrel is trying to say them. That he is struggling through the same encasing distance separating Lemm and the rest of the world, that suffocating barrier between his fellow bugs Lemm has never been able to force his way through.

Lemm’s fingers wrap slowly around the hilt and sits himself down on the edge of the spring, letting his legs soak in the water. He takes the nail out of the holster to hold the blade flat in his hands. Quirrel doesn’t adjust his position much, still facing away from the water, but he looks up towards Lemm as he scans over the engravings.

“You’ll tell me if I mis-translate something?” Lemm asks, without really expecting a response.

“I can’t,” says Quirrel. “I don’t know what it says.”

“You what?”

“Not a word of it.”

“It’s your nail. I haven’t seen you go ten feet without the thing. You’re joking now, surely.”

“I only wish,” says Quirrel. “During my travels outside of Hallownest, I had a few… memory problems. I thought my nail was inscribed with incomprehensible garbage for years. And when I remembered how to read it...” After a long moment, Quirrel shrugs. “A lot of things happened all at once.”

Well, Lemm isn’t going to pry. Not his business. He’s not a snoop, just a guy who occasionally digs up personal objects from dead folks for fun, and definitely not some weird voyeur to other people’s—magical sword voodoo nonsense. “I think best when I translate out loud,” says Lemm.

“By all means, then.”

“Can’t make heads or tails of the formatting…” Lemm says, “but here, this section, it reads: ‘Pilgrims of Greenpath pay respects to their god at a lake of… empty?’” He leans closer to the text. “Why would acid be—oh, of course. Textless. A lake of textless acid, of course someone using Archive shorthand would specify that.”

Quirrel shifts in the water, resettling a bit, but Lemm doesn’t sense any great urgency, so he keeps reading.

“‘Shrine is’—hmm. Humble, perhaps? ‘Humble but well made. Carved into the shell of a great beast. Interior is filled with Green’—it’s oddly emphasized, most likely referring to plantlife of some kind—‘as the rest. Beautiful, solemn place. Allowed, but not welcomed. Perhaps I carry too much Hallownest with me.’” Lemm hums to himself. “A scout report of some kind, or a travel log?”

He glances down at Quirrel, who seems equally puzzled.

“‘Lake cavern wide, depth unknown. Fascinating trip, wish to visit again.’”

Lemm frowns. “There’s no separation between that sentence and the next, but it seems unrelated. Maybe it’s truly random text, but that would be a monumental effort for so little return…”

“Keep going,” says Quirrel.

“You waited this long, you can wait for me to organize my thoughts.” Lemm runs a fingertip along the fine engraving. “‘City of Tears architecture defined by grooves and channels in its buildings and streets, constructed for the endless rainfall from the ceiling. The source is the Blue Lake, fed by numerous underground flows that all collect in the pocket made by geological forces eons passed. As a result, dry real estate becomes a premium, and is usually higher up due to the nature of rain collection along the cavern floor. The tallest tower to date, the Watcher’s Spire, is literally unpriceable, and never entered the real estate market when it was completed fifty years ago. For the first time in centuries, deeper real estate is no longer more valuable.’”

Lemm taps his fingers along the blade. “Fifty years ago? Well, that’s a time table, at least. This text was originally written just around the time Hallownest fell. Isn’t that helpful? This is hardly a wanderer’s journal—a little too much like an academic essay for that—but I do enjoy when authors date their records so clearly. Whoever this writer is—”

“I wrote this,” says Quirrel.

Lemm stares at him.

The only answer that Lemm could possibly draw from a response like that is that Quirrel is, in some manner, insane. Hallownest fell decades decades before Lemm was even hatched. There’s no way that Quirrel is telling the truth, no matter how sincere he looks. It’s simply not possible.

“That was my first peer-reviewed article,” says Quirrel, sounding like he’s in more disbelief than Lemm. “It was about how urban planning out of geographical necessity…” Quirrel frowns, like he’s struggling to remember. “...exacerbated class differences through flood zones and sheltered zones… I think…?”

“Somehow,” says Lemm, “your sheer disbelief makes you almost believable.”

“Don’t believe me. I tell you, this isn’t possible.”

“But I suppose the text about Greenpath was you as well?”

Quirrel starts scanning his nail on his own, nodding. “Yes, it was supposed to be only field notes, but it later became a model that I’d give the TAs for what good field notes should look li—” And then he stops talking abruptly as a dawning sort of horror begins to emerge, as though Quirrel is seeing something hideous crawling out from the ore.

“Lemm, stop reading.”

Lemm pauses. “Why on earth would I do that? It’s valuable information from before Hallownest fell!”

“Trust me, there is nothing valuable in—” Quirrel stops. “Please just give it back to me.”

“Huh.” Lemm ponders. “Did you say that it was your first peer reviewed essay?”

Quirrel does not respond, and that is all the answer Lemm needs. Quirrel’s eye widens. “Please don’t—”

Lemm returns to the text with a new ferocity. “Awfully ambitious for your first, wasn’t it? Most graduates chose something a little more contained for a thesis. But a romantic like you, you wanted to write on the whole history of a capital city!”

“It wasn’t the capital, the White Palace—”

“—wasn’t a city, and you and I both know it. Now, now, we can’t let this beginning effort of yours go unread, can we? That would be a waste of the young Quirrel’s hard work!”

Older, current Quirrel looks as though he has swallowed something spikey, poisonous, and alive. “Lemm—”

“‘To begin’—oh, Quirrel, you had unnecessary preamble!” Lemm says, a wide and sadistic grin growing on his face. Quirrel is actively blushing now, and Lemm is reveling in his embarrassment.

“I insist—”

“‘The foundation was built in an uninhabited cavern, long abandoned before the first settlers of Hallownest arrived—’”

“That was the accepted theory! Void kingdom artifacts weren’t properly dated until—!”

“‘Finding a home in a place scorned by the other tribes of the area’—oh, my, what a wonderful use of passive voice!”

“Oh gods stop, Relic Seeker, I beg you, I was a young graduate student, inexperienced—”

“‘The eternally raining area was known as Raining Cave.’” Lemm can’t help the snort that escapes him. “Did you really just—”

Quirrel makes a wild grab for the nail, but Lemm has the advantage of not being injured and also having the higher ground. Lemm is nearly cackling. “You did! You repeated yourself! Twice!”

Quirrel looks like he is actively attempting to leave his body, and is failing miserably.

“I don’t see why you’re so embarrassed,” Lemm says, seeing exactly why Quirrel is so embarrassed. “Just consider, your writing is preserved! Generations from now, long after you are dead, Relic Seekers could be studying this nail!”

“Lemm, please.” Quirrel’s face is in his hands, actively attempting to hide from everything that he has just been made aware of. Or perhaps he is hiding his face, trying to hang onto whatever shreds of dignity he has left.

“Don’t be so modest, ‘Quirrel the Scholar’,” Lemm says, running an appreciative finger over Quirrel’s words. “Many a historian would kill for such a permanent—”

“‘Scholar’?”

Lemm looks up. Quirrel has emerged from his hands. “What?” Lemm says, because he honestly doesn’t know what Quirrel is talking about.

“What do you mean, ‘scholar’?”

“Well—it’s right here.” Lemm points to a string of characters near the crossguard. “‘Credited to’—well, there’s a pictogram here, but I assume this is the pictogram for your name—’Credited to Quirrel the Scholar.’ I can only assume…?”

Quirrel frowns. “...So she changed the title.”

“‘She’?”

Lemm knows instantly he’s made a mistake. He said he wasn’t going to pry. He swore that he’d let Quirrel have his space and avoid all the questions that Quirrel wants to.

“It seems that my life has been longer than we both knew,” says Quirrel, at length, which does nothing to assuage the sheer amount of low-key panic Lemm is definitely not feeling. “Perhaps someday I’ll tell you the full story, if you’d still like to hear it. But for now…”

Quirrel stares at the water, then sinks lower.

“Well. She was the one who taught me everything I knew. She thought that my title at the Archive was antiquated. We used to argue over it for fun—you see, faculty were teachers, staff were ‘archivists’, so I was Head Archivist. It was only after I took the role that she always said that I did more traveling than archiving, and that the whole title should be changed. So.”

“So when the nail was made, because she’d changed the title, it was all inscribed as Scholar…?”

“Perhaps. Or maybe she only changed the text on this nail in particular, when she commissioned it.”

That’s preposterous,” says Lemm definitively, as if not everything that’s come out of Quirrel’s mouth in the last ten minutes hasn’t been preposterous. “This nail is made of pale ore. First off, not just anyone can simply commission a nail made of pale ore; and second off, you don’t simply make one of these and then give it away…!”

“It came with a duty I couldn’t refuse,” says Quirrel flatly. (There it is—Lemm’s overstepped for real, that time.) Quirrel holds his hand out for the nail. “It was complicated. I have wondered, lately, if perhaps we did not care about each other as much as we thought, and that perhaps selfishness poisoned any of the good we had. Maybe I’ll tell you someday, far in the future, when this is all just an old story distant in our memories. But for now, it was complicated.”

Lemm doesn’t move. Quirrel looks tired—not the sort of tired when he’d first come out of the Teacher’s inner chamber, where he’d managed it by the skin of his teeth but still came out, ultimately, better for it. (Whatever “it” was.) This is a sort of tired from an old wound that never healed right, loose ends that were never tied; the sort of tired that only grows.

And what can Lemm do about that, hm? Lemm figures, then, that it’ll still be a long way before Quirrel will ever explain himself, which will be just fine, because Quirrel should have a long life ahead of him to figure it all out. So what does Lemm know about any of this? If he were smart, he’d shut up and give that nail back.

Lemm moves to hand it over, and stops nearly instantly.

Quirrel looks exhausted.

Slowly, Lemm takes the nail back. Reads the lines again, over and over: Quirrel the Scholar, with dates, titles, everything a young student had ever loved enough to write down on paper...

“She can’t have been that bad,” says Lemm.

Quirrel is the most politely unimpressed Lemm has ever seen from a bug sitting in three rolls of bandages in a hot spring.

“I don’t know people, but I know relics,” says Lemm. “These are places you loved, aren’t they?”

“...I suppose so,” says Quirrel. “Things I discovered that piqued my interest. The things I studied that made me want to go out there and discover more.”

“Things you enjoyed for no other reason than that they delighted and fascinated you, without justification or apology,” Lemm says. “And I don’t know about reasons to live or purposes or knighthood or any of that hogwash, but I know what it means to love a useless thing enough to write it down and carry it with you. This is a blade that outlived its commissioner and its blacksmith, and will outlive you and me, for that matter, and possibly everyone who ever knew us, and these are the things she chose to carve in immortality: in your own words, for your own reasons, your own joy.”

Quirrel doesn’t reply.

“A person who’d make a nail like this… Even if it was complicated, you can’t say that a selfish person could have made this nail. She gave this to you to keep, and she made it your nail—not even a nail from her to you, but yours. She must have really cared about you. And I think that’s still true.”

Quirrel holds his hands out for the nail first, and Lemm places the blade back in his palms without complaint. It is only after Quirrel looks down, and reads the written words for himself, that he looks up and smiles.

“Relic Seeker, who would have thought? I do believe you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right,” says Lemm, and breathes a sigh of relief. “Now get better. And eat your jam.”

 

*

 

The little bell tolls when the shop door opens, one more time. Their pale mask eyeholes are already wide open; the dark, instead, moves to wake. The Knight lifts their head. The light of the lumaflies follows around Quirrel’s shape, shining sweetly along the Knight’s pale shell. Quirrel reeks of leaking soul, but none of the dust tastes like the important bits, so those must still be inside Quirrel’s shell. The Knight lets it be. The shadows that are left have polite surprise, after Quirrel’s own.

“An unexpected friendly face,” says Quirrel, as the Relic Seeker squeezes himself into his own shop after Quirrel. “How good to see you, after all this time—”

“Why are you sitting alone in my shop in the dark,” says Lemm.

“What the Relic Seeker means,” says Quirrel, “is what brings you here, my friend?”

It doesn’t matter what brings them here. It matters only why. This, of course, is difficult to express to people who don’t listen, which is most bugs equipped with speech and verbal language, and Quirrel is regrettably one of those more often than he isn’t. (It is the times that he isn’t that the Knight considers treasure well found. Besides, it’s no fault or lack of willingness on Quirrel’s end, and the Knight can be forgiving.) The Knight will have to gamble with Quirrel’s listening comprehension (as they always do, since they’ve never spoken any language but their own in all the years of their lives).

They hold out Quirrel’s own cleaning cloth.

“Oh,” says Quirrel. “I’d forgotten that, hadn’t I?”

“You were sitting alone in my shop in the dark for a cleaning cloth,” says Lemm.

“Thank you,” says Quirrel, very pointedly. “That’s very kind of you to hold on to it for me.”

Carefully, Quirrel sits along the sofa at the Knight’s side, takes the cloth, and begins to put down his traveling supplies on the Relic Seeker’s cashier desk—the bag, the bandages (soaked in fresh soul), a small bottle of water.

“And now you’re putting your trash on my desk,” says Lemm.

Quirrel puts his nail down too.

“Oh, alright,” says Lemm.

“Thank you, Relic Seeker,” Quirrel says. The sound of exhaustion. The Knight hops up on the Relic Seeker’s desk and watches as Quirrel lays down a tin of jam, a pair of spoons, and then the cloth to rest at the Knight’s feet. Pungent with old, cheap metal. The fizz and pop of acid. Teardrops on a walkway. The smell of growing older, growing deeper, growing new again.

Chapter Text

One thing Lemm knew intimately after all his time on this earth was that as soon as you start getting used to a bug and their ways, they were guaranteed to change things up on you.

Following that logic, instead of flouncing off to their next adventure after breaking and entering into Lemm’s own home, the Knight has the nerve to just not leave.

“He’s not even conscious right now,” Lemm says. The sound of clinking charms and rustling paper as the Knight rearranges their inventory remains as constant as ever. Lemm can’t tell if the Knight has noticed him. “You could leave and bring back a sack full of relics before he even finished napping.”

The Knight pauses. Flips their map over to the other side. Keeps scribbling.

Lemm grumbles under his breath, tapping impatiently on the counter. “Does no one have respect for the sanctity of a bug’s home anymore? No? We’re all just going to make ourselves warm and cozy in my shop? The shop for me? The shop I built for me to live in, intentionally, for myself, to be alone, without others, nobody else, especially not wanderers, relic seekers only, but specifically Lemm the Relic Seeker in particular?”

The Knight punctuates their sentence with a period. And keeps writing. Lemm could be talking to the memorial to the Hollow Knight, for all their reactions.

“How much scribbling can you even do on one map?”

The Knight actually pauses this time. They turn to face Lemm slowly, smoothly, giving the impression that maybe their neck could go all the way around like a haunted doll.

“Well?” says Lemm.

The Knight tilts their head to one side in a considering sort of fashion. After a while, they hop down from the chair (that they had somehow dragged out of the kitchen and into the front room), and walk briskly over to Lemm’s counter. They jump up (of course getting their grimy feet all over everything) and lay out their precious map before Lemm.

“...You certainly get around.”

The map fills every inch of the parchment, caverns and tunnels sketched out in simple yet intricate detail, pockmarked with pins of various symbols and colors. The Knight watches Lemm’s face as he scans the map for landmarks or pathways he could recognize offhand. They remain as expressionless as ever, and yet Lemm feels their nail-sharp focus on his neck.

His eyes, luckily, land on a small doodle near the center of the map. The curved horns of figure can only be the plaza that houses the Hollow Knight memorial statue. From there, familiar corridors slot into the places the map implies, though the Knight does appear to have missed some key shortcuts and side streets.

Lemm reaches for the map. “I’ll pay you six hundred geo for this,” says Lemm.

The Knight smacks his hand away. “You could just say no! Your map isn’t even entirely accurate,” Lemm says sourly. “If you’d taken a left here, you’d have avoided fighting through the Spire entirely, you know.”

The Knight, expression unchanging, stares Lemm down. They do not adjust their map in any fashion.

“Fine. Be wrong.”

Lemm traces his usual path to Blue Lake, pausing on the Knight’s doodles of cars in the elevator shafts. (They’re oddly detailed.) The trip itself, Lemm knew, was an all day sort of excursion, considering it was a round trip. Moving around that many husks, even avoiding the more concentrated areas, took a lot of care. Lemm thought of that as a pretty significant journey.

The map in its entirety was nearly the size of Lemm’s desk. The distance from Lemm’s shop to the Blue Lake is less than the length of his finger.

By contrast, the shaky path Lemm traces from what could only be a pin marking his shop, up through the apartments, out of the City entirely,  through the Fungal Wastes, and into Fog Canyon… Landing on the distinct image of the Teacher’s Archive—the longest journey Lemm had taken since he first found his shop in Hallownest—

—was only a small piece of this map.

Not nothing, of course. Lemm would balk if Hallownest was truly that vast. But when he spreads his hand, they more than encompass the distance.

Lemm’s world, in that moment, feels unspeakably small. And he’d been spending years in this tiny, tiny space.

The Knight, who has made no feelings on Lemm’s study of their map whatsoever, either hasn’t noticed any of this or simply possesses a truly frightening patience at the most inconvenient times. Lemm grunts. “Well, it’s a fine map, I’ll give you that.. Easily the most thorough I’ve seen of Hallownest, in its current form, and I’ve seen more than a few traveller’s maps in my day.”

A small hand, black as pitch, pats lightly at the map on the counter. Lemm is not entirely sure what the Knight is trying to say, but he nods, and they seem to appreciate that.

“...Seven hundred geo.”

The Knight stares at him.

Whatever. Lemm can get another map off someone else’s corpse later. “What’s this?” Lemm says, pointing to the little pins shaped like faces.

The Knight shrugs.

“So there are other people in this old husk of a kingdom. Make any friends?”

The Knight points to the next room.

“So that’s how you know him. You traveled together, then?”

They shake their head.

“You traveling types. In love with the solo journey, I swear. Hasn’t it ever occurred to you to find a traveling partner? Maybe you’d all stop dying so often if you did.”

The Knight’s not listening. They peel off a series of blue pins from the corner of the map and plunk them down in various spots: middle of Deepnest, the City of Tears, all the way up in the Forgotten Crossroads, Mantis Village, the Teacher’s Archive. Then they point to the other room again.

Oh, how Lemm enjoys these little charade games. “You traveled with Quirrel in those places.” The Knight shakes their head. “You traveled alone in those places.” The Knight shakes their head. “You found a traveling partner in those places?” The Knight shakes their head. “You didn’t have a traveling partner and died in those places.” The Knight makes a so-so gesture. “You—wait, what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

The Knight points to the other room again.

“You met him at those places.”

The Knight nods.

There’s a lot of blue pins, which is impressive in its own right that the Knight and Quirrel crossed paths so frequently when Hallownest was so vast. The distance between the blue pins is ridiculous. Lemm’s hand doesn’t cover even half the distance. And for the Knight to meet Quirrel at all those locations meant that Quirrel had been in all those locations… Lemm feels maybe a little stupid just then, because he’d known intellectually that Quirrel had traveled the world, but it was one thing to know that and another thing entirely to see the path Quirrel had walked on a map. Lemm wonders if either the Knight or Quirrel bothered to make a map of the world outside Hallownest—what it might look like to trail blue pins all the way across that map, how many hand-spans worth it would take to cover all the places and roads and kingdoms in the world.

What a load of trouble. All that walking—and for what? To see some dirt? Lemm’s got dirt under his desk right now. For what—for the vibrancy in Quirrel’s face as he led them through Fog Canyon? For the joy in his voice when he spoke of all the places he’d seen and been?

Like Lemm said: What a load of trouble.

“Great,” says Lemm. “Good for you. Travelled the length, made a nice map, saw the sights, been there, done that. Now what?”

The Knight doesn’t move.

“You had your big fancy journey. You did everything there is to do. Been to the Teacher’s Archive.” Lemm glares at that blue pin in particular. “You go home, don’t you? That’s what you do when you’re done traveling, isn’t it?”

The Knight does not respond to that either.

“So? Where’s home for you?”

The Knight shakes their head.

“What do you mean, ‘no’? Where’d you come from?”

The Knight shakes their head.

“Don’t give me that. You didn’t just pop out of the ground. Wherever you came from, that’s your home, isn’t it?”

The Knight shakes their head.

“You traveling types,” says Lemm again disparagingly. “All the same. Can’t tell you the number of outcasts, runaways, and bastard orphans I’ve seen coming through Hallownest. Suppose nobody’ll miss them, anyway.”

The Knight looks off towards the other room again.

“I didn’t mean him. That one’s just crazy. Only mad people like travelling like he does.”

Quirrel has been all over that map—practically from end to end. For what? For fun? Unbelievable. Lemm scoffs and looks away over the Knight’s head, directly at the window behind Lemm’s desk, where Quirrel used to stand for hours on end, staring out the window, pacing the length of the shop like a restless animal.

“Ridiculous, you traveling types,” says Lemm, absently. “Whoever heard of someone who couldn’t stay in one place?”

 

*

 

Where you come from is where your home is, you know. And your home is who you are.

Lemm came straight out of his own relic seeker shop. True fact. No, really. One day a shop got set up in an abandoned apartment in the City of Tears, full of knick-knacks and anything else Lemm thought was interesting, and then Lemm Appeared. And he’s been there ever since.

If Lemm adventures a dangerous trip to Watcher’s Spire and its infected residents, he knows where he goes after that—back home, to where he belongs, where the husks won’t bother him. If Lemm goes fishing in the Royal Waterways, he knows where he’s going to hoard all the relics he finds. If Lemm finds some hooligan trying to drown himself in the Blue Lake, Lemm knows where he goes after that: home, presumably with hooligan in tow, where Lemm knows exactly where he can stay and where he can eat and where they’ll both be able to close the doors against the rain and the tides. Close the doors, close the windows, let the sound of time pass by while the shop remains, untouched.

The center of the universe is the Relic Seeker’s Shop, where all old and wandering relics pass through and live again. You can’t put a price on something like that—a staple in the world that you can always go back to, no matter where you go or what you do. Take the staple out, everything falls apart. The entire map disintegrates.

Lemm likes the things that travelers come to sell him, but he doesn’t trust anyone who can’t tell him where they came from. You can’t just not have a place you came from. How else will you know where you’ll go back to? And if you don’t know where you’re going, how can you know anything at all? A name is just a word. A home is what you are.

Travelers go around thinking they can exist without a home, without a place they came from. It’s nonsense. Absolute bullshit. The height of self-delusion, in Lemm’s opinion.

But it doesn’t matter to Lemm. Travelers always leave, and Lemm always stays right here, and it matters very little in the end.

 

*

 

The other downside to traveling, aside from the multitude of downsides Lemm could already list even before the trip to the Archive, was that when he returned home, everything had a thin layer of dust.

Not a thick layer. They had only been gone for a few days—although it was sometimes difficult to tell in Hallownest—certainly less than two weeks. The shop was not suddenly filled with cobwebs or the smell of mildew. But the shine had gone from some of his relics, and that wasn’t a situation Lemm could leave alone.

So when Quirrel starts complaining (politely, as he does) about Lemm’s enforced bedrest, Lemm gets out the cleaning supplies. Quirrel’s so glad just to stand up and walk around that he dusts the King’s Idols with what looks like actual joy. His wounds are still dressed, but on bedrest and a steady diet of soups they heal a bit every day. Quirrel’s half-mask stands out as the worst of the damage now. Everything else is healing or scarring over into sturdy shell.

The Knight contributes by getting out of the way, if standing in one place just long enough to test Lemm’s patience only to move at the last second counts as ‘contributing.’ It’s childish. It’s frightfully domestic. Lemm sweeps with some unnecessary vigor, sending more particles into the air than into the pile he’s ostensibly making. The Knight sneezes.

Lemm sticks the broom under his desk, trying to get at the dirt that’s collected under it, knocking it against the wood as he does. The Knight hops up onto the desk itself, as if knowing instinctively where they’ll be both out of the way and yet irritatingly in Lemm’s face simultaneously. Lemm retaliates by banging the handle of his broom into the desk as often as he can pass off as accidental. “Do you want some help?” Quirrel says absently.

“I know what I’m doing. This’ll get it just as cleaned without me getting all sorts of nonsense in my beard—” Lemm says, just as his broom bangs into something shoved into the furthest corner under his desk. He drags it closer with the handle of his broom. “What on earth? Why do I have a bag of rocks under my desk? Good gods, the nonsense I’ve allowed to collect in this shop.”

Now would you like some help?”

Lemm dumps the bag of rocks on the top of the desk. Two seconds too late, the Knight moves out of the way. “Yes, yes. We can sort through it when we’ve got the time.”

By the time the floor’s clean, the Knight’s got their entire face in the bag of stones and is slowly excavating its grimy, dirty contents onto Lemm’s desk. “Wonderful. Shall we add washing the desk to the list of chores?” says Lemm.

Quirrel picks up a rock. “What are we doing with these?”

“Cracking it open. See what’s inside. Throw it out if there’s nothing.”

“Archaeology? My expertise was never artifacts. Is there a special approach the professional relic seeker might suggest?”

For half a moment, Lemm faces the unshakable feeling Quirrel is mocking him. But the truly miraculous thing is that it only lasts half a moment. Quirrel looks at Lemm with sincere interest. Of course Quirrel isn’t being cruel. Lemm knows that. “Hit it really hard with a hammer,” says Lemm.

The Knight nods in firm agreement.

“When have you been breaking open rocks?” Lemm says.

The Knight stares at Lemm as if he is asking the most foolish question ever uttered.

Quirrel frowns slightly. “But what happens if this rocks we crack apart does contain some small relic? Wouldn’t it be broken?”

“It’s not an arcane egg, Quirrel. It doesn’t come apart in layers. It’s a rock,” says Lemm grumpily, and then adds: “We would never have known about it unless we broke it open, anyway. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

The first rock does not split into precise halves, but the layers separate into discrete pieces almost easily. The leverage Lemm uses to remove the chisel pops the thinner top piece clear off the bottom. Lemm glares at it. He’s tempted to go at the rest of the rocks at that very moment, but Quirrel glides into place next to him and takes the larger piece out from under him.

“Remarkable. They certainly have weight to them, but that weight has provided them no strength.” Quirrel examines the rock from a few angles, squinting at it. “I assumed that a heavier rock must be a strong one, before now.” He lowers the rock to the Knight’s level, to allow them a look of their own.

“From what I recall, that’s most often true,” Lemm says, leaving the hammer and chisel on his desk.

“Another rare strangeness of many, down here in the depths Hallownest…”

Lemm turns and scowls at the smaller rock piece. Cracking it open has revealed a series of layers, differentiated by small variations in color. But amongst the layers, one bit is not aligned with the rest. Lemm squints at it, reaching for his second-smallest magnifying glass. “Quirrel, have a look at this.”

“Have you discovered something?” Quirrel says, sounding rather interested in that damnably honest way of his.

“No guarantee. Here, with the magnifying glass.” Lemm hands it off to Quirrel. “That section, see how it curves into the other layers?”

“Indeed! And it is an exact match for this half.” Quirrel demonstrates by showing Lemm the distinctly matching curve. “What do you suppose caused it?”

“How would I know? I study relics, not rocks. But…” He squints. “Perhaps if you used a more delicate pick to pry that section out from the surrounding stone...”

Quirrel is already setting to work on the larger piece. Lemm debates leaving him to it, briefly, but find himself sitting down with the smaller half and a pick of his own. It’s mindless, soothing work, and Lemm loses himself in the familiar groove of a task that requires some focus, but not so much it becomes exhausting. The sound of the rain, and Quirrel working diligently on his own piece of stone, only adds to the effect. While they work, the Knight sorts the rocks, first from smallest to largest, then by color, and finally by some categorization Lemm has no inkling of.

The piece is separate from the rest of the rock, or at least separate enough that it doesn’t take much aside from diligent picking to remove it from the surrounding stone. When Lemm wipes the dust away, he’s left with a small brown rock with strange, distinct ridges on its surface. Lemm squints at it, trying to recall if stones could be formed into that shape naturally.

“Lemm, are you finished?”

“I got the piece out, if that’s what you mean, but I don’t have a clue what it could possibly be.”

When Lemm turns, Quirrel is still diligently working on his larger piece, having pried away about half of the stone. “Perhaps are more complete picture will be more illuminating.”

“I wouldn’t get my hopes up.” Lemm turns his chair to more fully watch Quirrel work. “Rocks contain, most often, more rock. It would be ridiculously lucky to find something in the very first stone.”

“You never know, Lemm. Good fortune can strike at any time.”

Lemm hmphs. “It can, but it most certainly doesn’t.”

The rock is still covered in dust when Quirrel’s finished with it, but Lemm can clearly see the same ridges that mark the other piece. The Knight, satisfied with their sorting efforts, leans in close. Lemm hands him the dust rag and Quirrel gets to wiping away the dusty excess. “Perhaps a stone shaped by some forces deeper belowground?” Quirrel idly speculates.

“There are many things it could be, so let’s get a better look and more information.”

There’s a strange excitement in the air, bolstered by the Knight leaning closer and closer all the time. Finally, Quirrel removes the cloth and reveals the shape that they have excavated from the stone.

It’s… hm.

“Is this a geo?”

Lemm leans in close. “It’s not any of the official denominations, and it certainly hasn’t been properly standardized, but that is indeed one of the fossils used as geo.”

The fossil is about a handspan long, a bit like a five geo piece, but too wide for the standard shape. The distinctive ridges march up the length in thin, steady increments, before meeting up with a round half-circle piece that Lemm theorizes is an armored head. Lemm’s piece is a chunk taken out of the back end, but it’s along one of the ridges, easily fixed and even more easily disguised.

“What a life this little creature must have lead, and yet here it is, waiting to be found in a stone on the shore of the Blue Lake,” Quirrel says, because of course he does.

“Yes, yes, how poetic,” Lemm says. “Fossils aren’t exactly rare around here; there’s a reason they’re standard currency—” Hold on. “Blue Lake?”

“I assume so?” says Quirrel, confused at Lemm’s confusion. “Don’t you remember?”

The Knight reaches gently for the geo piece, and Quirrel obliges their curiosity. As they hold it, they look at it even more intently, as if they could reveal its secrets if they just stood there and glared at it long enough. “Sorry, my friend,” says Quirrel. “It’s not exactly standard currency. It doesn’t look like it’s worth anything but the pleasure of discovering it.”

Blue Lake? Lemm thinks, and then as if on cue: the stones Quirrel had at the Blue Lake when they first met. The stones that Lemm brought back under the pretense that they’d break them open at his shop, just for an excuse to drag Quirrel back with him, and then promptly forgot about because he’d assumed they wouldn’t have anything in them worth discovering. Those stones.

The Knight hands the piece back to Quirrel, and then goes to the coffee table. They look up and down their line of carefully-sorted rocks. They select one. Then they hold it out for Quirrel as if in a question.

“Of course,” says Quirrel, like the Knight really had spoken, and takes the offering. “Who knows what other small wonders we’ll find?”

 

*

 

Lemm was made for the Relic Seeker’s shop. To have made yourself is a stroke of the only fortune that anyone could ever ask for. When other people get their grubby mitts into your origin story, everything goes to hell. Suddenly you’re making decisions based off what someone else might want to do if they had the right to control your life—worse yet, you might do it willingly.

A creature like Lemm couldn’t have been made anywhere but in a relic shop, anyhow, so Lemm thinks that Lemm’s sudden appearance in his own shop makes perfect sense. Someone like him could never have been the product of a small town on the side of the road, tucked into a  mountain face near the salt mines. The obsessiveness that Lemm collects fossils, trash, old bits of some long-passed era could never have been the natural conclusion of any normal sort of town. Such a hermit would have been an anomaly bordering on the impossible bordering on the rumored, a source of village gossip, a conversation piece as people wondered how any sane person would ever devoting himself completely, day and night, to a pile of old trash he’d dug up out of the ground. How extremely fortunate that such a thing never happened, and therefore nobody ever disappeared from the village outskirts one day without a warning or farewell, and nobody walked every step of the road alone out of fear of having to hold a conversation with anyone he hitchhiked with; and nobody ever resolved themselves that it was better to be himself and alone than someone else and surrounded with people he never cared for, anyway.

You see, there’s nothing quite like doing work you love. Lemm thinks that maybe people don’t realize that, but happiness is no thing of its own—happiness is certainly not other people, that’s for certain. It’s a byproduct of doing whatever ridiculous hobby you willingly choose on a rainy day with no other plans. Nothing brings Lemm joy like sitting down with someone else’s account of Hallownest.

There were only ever two legends from Hallownest’s golden era that Lemm didn’t love. These are also the only two legends he rereads.

The first is the legend of the Hollow Knight—forgotten to this day, seemingly with great intention, since there was simply no other explanation for why there was never any record of them, could there? A great sacrifice and a memorial for their loss, and yet done completely without thanks. Did the common public even know of them when they’d been alive? Had they toiled their whole life in silence and service, and gone out the same way? What kind of dedication must it have required, to have done all that without even a glimpse of approval from anyone else? What kind of love?

The second is the legend of the Teacher’s Archive.

There are very few records of the Archive itself. Plenty of the research that it churned out, but less so about what the Archive was like back in its hey-day. Lemm would say he knows more about the Archive than he does the Hollow Knight by a technicality. (The technicality’s name is Quirrel.) He assumes it was a research facility of some sort from circumstantial evidence and a gut feeling. He knows what the script looks like, but not a single one of the people who wrote it. He knows they collected knowledge, passed it on, kept it safe, and recorded every odd fact and scrap of trivia.

Lemm does not often commit himself to strong opinions without complete data, but he is sure that the Archive must have been a wonderful place. He is almost certain that such a place could only have been made by strange, obsessive types holed themselves up on the outskirts of Fog Canyon and wouldn’t know how to be less obsessed with odd knowledge and mysterious artifacts if it bit them on the nose. He is almost certain that anyone who’d been there would agree with him: if there is such a thing as self, or happiness, or contract, or service, they are nothing compared to doing the work you love.

 

*

 

Eventually, the Knight goes about a great show of strapping their nail on their back, collecting all their loose odds and ends into their mysterious cloak, and parading across the room to the door. It all rings of performance. If the strange bug had wanted to leave, Lemm is certain they would have done so without a word or sign. He assumes they’re doing that game of charades again to make their point, but Lemm hasn’t the faintest what that point might be.

“Lemm, have you seen—” Quirrel stops, midway through emerging from the back room. “Ah. Are you leaving, then?”

The Knight nods once.

“I wish you good luck on your travels, my friend. Perhaps we shall see each other again soon?”

The Knight looks down at the floor. Not in shame, or embarrassment, but in deep thought. When they look up again, they point at Quirrel insistently.

“Well, I think I’ll stay here a bit longer, if that’s what you mean.”

The Knight tilts their head, as if this doesn’t make sense, or as if Quirrel has lied and the Knight is offering a chance to correct it.

“Good luck, my friend,” Quirrel says instead.

“You said that already,” says Lemm.

“A traveler can never have too much luck.”

Lemm grunts. Then to the Knight, he says: “Well? Off you go! Surely you’ve done enough loitering?” Lemm waves them off. “Shoo, shoo! And be sure to come back with some relics!”

Lemm hadn’t meant to say that. Except there was nothing wrong with saying that, was there? Of course Lemm wants the Knight to return. Their sales make up a significant portion of the collection now. It’d be good for the collection to see Lemm’s most frequent (and apparently indestructible) patron again. Lemm’s got no business feeling like he’s confessed to something terrible.

The Knight, for their part, looks at Lemm for a long moment. They make no indication whatsoever that they’ve heard him. Instead, they turn, leave, and quietly shut the door behind them.

Quirrel stands there for a moment, and before anything else can happen, before Quirrel can retreat, before Lemm can let his cowardice get in the way, he says—

“You didn’t have to turn them down. You can go if you’d like.”

Quirrel looks at Lemm as though he has caught him in a trap, or spotted him committing some small crime. It’s a frozen, accused look, but he does not leap to his denials quite fast enough. “Whatever gave you the idea that I wanted to leave?”

Besides literally everything Quirrel had ever done? The waxing poetic about traveling? The joy he had on even the short trip to Fog Canyon? Give Lemm a break. “Fine. Don’t leave, then,” says Lemm. “I’m just reminding you that there’s no reason why you can’t,”  says Lemm, and tucks his face into his beard in the pretense of examining a wanderer’s journal. “You’re not my employee. You don’t owe me anything, god forbid. We never had a contract or a deal beyond helping out with the shop if you stuck around. And need I remind you, I’m perfectly capable of running this shop alone.”

Now Quirrel’s got his arms crossed. Lemm isn’t quite sure what he’s saying wrong—if he’s saying anything wrong at all. He can’t be. Quirrel’s love of travel is plain as day. Lemm’s got no intention of standing between a bug and the things he loves to do. “I’m just saying,” says Lemm. “You’re free to stay. You’re free to go.”

“Just like that?” Quirrel says, as if the idea was unthinkable.

Guilt, in Lemm’s estimation, is the most useless emotion a bug can possess. Here, now, what was Quirrel’s guilt providing him? Nothing but the notion that Quirrel should feel regretful about something he is going to do anyway. Or, worse yet, that Quirrel should feel regretful about doing something he should do. Quirrel would grow miserable trapped here, down in the dark, in a City tainted with so many ghosts and memories. He would wilt like a plant without the sun.

“Why not?” Lemm asks. “I bet you’ve already got a list of places you’d like to visit, don’t you?”

Quirrel brightens despite himself. “Well, of course! Did you know there was a traveler here, some time ago? She is the one I bought all that flatware from. She talked of a place called Snowy Shore, and the way she described it, Lemm—! I feel like I have dreamed of it, vividly, and yet I cannot properly recall if I have ever been there. This feeling of curiosity won’t let me rest.”

Honest excitement lights up Quirrel’s entire frame. He almost shines with it, a different light entirely than the misted lanterns of the City, or the bioluminescent glow of the Archive, or the ugly infected light of the husks.

“Is it strange that it fills me with such excitement? And all the places I heard in passing during my travels before, they clamor in my head like so many chimes. I already told you of Forest Roost, of Salt Springs— but not Snowy Shore, or the Golden Spires, or Red Drop Pass, because I have only heard stories of those places. Stories on the road, and stories here. I keep thinking: if I went there myself, I could see if the stories are true, make the stories real, make a few stories of my own to tell...”

Quirrel trails off in thought. Lemm sinks into his own shell. How very well and good, all these exciting and fascinating places Quirrel’s only heard rumors of, has no solid information about, and could very well get himself killed trying to find.  They clamor in Lemm’s head, but not much like chimes at all. Lemm says nothing about it. If nothing else, Lemm’s stubborn, and set in his ways, and unchanging. Everyone and everything moves around him, without him, until he finally came to a place that was dead. Even the husks moved in unchanging patterns.

Quirrel is just another bug moving on and changing, and Lemm is being his stubborn, unchanging self. Just how it should be.

“Say…” says Quirrel. “Lemm.”

“What.”

Quirrel looks at him evenly. “Say that I did want to go. Say that I did want to travel again—”

“Are you going to insist on speaking in a hypothetical? Because I’ve got better things to do than talk around something for the sake of courtesy.” Or, gods forbid, feelings. Lemm would like to continue his stellar track record of doing nothing for the sake of feelings.

“Say that I did want to travel again. Say that I did want to go back and see the places I haven’t been to yet in Hallownest—and there’s still quite a few left in Hallownest alone, actually, and then a few places I didn’t even know I hadn’t been to yet. Say I wanted to make my way all the way to the depths of Deepnest, to visit the Mask Maker…”

“The who?”

“The point is the hypotheticals I’m speaking in for the sake of courtesy,” says Quirrel.

“Disgusting,” says Lemm. “Continue.”

“It’s come to my attention of late that some tasks must be done alone—pilgrimages, for example, or quests to find some long lost truth. But I’ll be doing neither of the sort from now on. You’re right: If I travel again—”

When you travel again—”

“—If I travel again, it’ll be done for my own reasons. As I have no other reasons left, after all.”

“A tremendous advantage,” Lemm replies instinctively.

“I would not have agreed with you a month ago.” Quirrel looks Lemm in the eyes, broken mask to meet his. “It is entirely your fault that I do now. So if I’ll travel on my own terms, I see no reason now why I have to travel alone.”

“If you run, you might be able to catch up with that little knight-friend of yours. Go make them be your travel buddy.”

“That might be bad for my injuries,” says Quirrel dryly. “Besides, there’s already someone I’ve traveled with before right here.”

It takes Lemm a second to put that one together.

What?” says Lemm, almost offended.

Quirrel snorts. “Why the surprise?” When we went to the Archive, I didn’t mind your company.”

“Nonsense! I slowed you down, got us lost, made a ruckus, complained every step of the way… I’d be awful to travel with. Good gods! You’d be stuck with me and my grouchiness for days on end! Think about what you’re saying.”

“We’re already stuck together for days on end and I don’t particularly mind,” says Quirrel.

“We are not. You’re free to go whenever you like.”

“And I already knew about you and your grouchiness, and I don’t mind that either,” Quirrel goes on.

“So you should very well know that I’d be the worst possible person to travel with!”

“It’s only a suggestion,” Quirrel says, in that mild tone of voice that signifies that he’s made up his mind and is rather abusing the definition of the word ‘suggest.’ “You need not take it too seriously, or think much of it—”

“Good,” says Lemm angrily. “Then I won’t.”

Anger boils up Lemm’s blood, and words emerge from him like his kettle whistling violent steam. “Traveling? Me? Where to? Why? So it can all go to hell and we can part ways in the middle of nowhere out of frustration? The idea is ludicrous. And my shop, Quirrel! My relics! It’s my life’s work in here, and you’d have me abandon everything I’ve collected on a half-cocked adventure that’ll get us both killed sooner rather than later? Please! I don’t invest in nonsense fairytales. Go find a travel partner if you’d like one, but don’t bring me into it—”

“Goodness, Lemm, it was only a suggestion.” Quirrel sounds genuinely surprised. “I know how much your shop means to you—”

“I should hope so! There’s nothing in that shop I didn’t collect myself! This shop took years to build, tailored to exactly every odd interest I ever liked, every nice piece of furniture I ever fancied, down to the rain on the window pane; and the best part of it all is that it’s safe, it’s quiet, it’s sedentary, and I don’t have to put up with anyone else!”

There’s a long silence.

The moment Quirrel says, “It was only a suggestion, Relic Seeker,” is the same moment Lemm realizes he ruined it.

Quirrel’s tone has taken on a stiff formality, as if they’re strangers again. Lemm has been here before. He hasn’t been here for a long time, not since before he came to Hallownest. But he knows this place, this feeling, the familiarity of other people’s disappointment.

You knew this was coming, Lemm thinks. This is what happens every time you try to deal with other people. Why are you so surprised?

“...Yes. Only a suggestion. There’s...” Lemm struggles valiantly for words. Why is it so difficult now, when they flowed like the water outside just moments ago? “There’s no harm done by suggestions.”

Right. Quirrel did no harm here. His suggestion didn’t do anything but provide Lemm an opening to make the same mistakes Lemm can’t seem to help himself from making, over and over and over.

Quirrel is finally standing, arms loose at his sides. Lemm can’t read his expression. “I had no idea I was such a burden on you.”

See, the trouble is that by all accounts, all logical sense, all the metrics Lemm had previously used to measure his life and accomplishments, Quirrel should be a burden. He should be an impossibly thorough distraction from his purpose; the study and collecting of Relics, everything Lemm has devoted himself to since before the shop he now stands in. Quirrel dropped unceremoniously into his world, and his past and infection took over entire swathes of Lemm time. Days, weeks, months of time he could have been devoting to tricky projects or the truly magnificent wealth of relics the Knight had provided for them. Quirrel had been, as Lemm put it earlier, ‘standing between a bug and the things he loves to do.’

So why can’t Lemm bring himself to call Quirrel a burden? He cannot even bring himself to call Quirrel a distraction. Lemm brought Quirrel into his shop himself, and has worked hard to keep him there. Worse, he’s worked hard to keep him alive, and happy. And in the meantime, his relics languished.

“It’s not a matter of burden. I don’t get along with other people,” Lemm says gruffly. “Surely you already knew that.”

Lemm doesn’t look up, which is why he sees, clearly, as Quirrel’s hands clench in frustration on Lemm’s desk. “I already told you that I don’t mind,” Quirrel replies. “It seems like the only person here who minds is you.”

“Very much so,” says Lemm.

 

*

 

It doesn’t take very long after that for Quirrel’s “hypothetical travel plans” to become unhypothetical. Lemm knew that would happen. All travelers are the same. Can’t sit still. Always gallivanting around, homeless on the road, until they disappear into some foreign grave.

Well. Lemm’s a stubborn old coot, and he won’t go back on his word. If that’s what makes Quirrel happy, Lemm’ll be happy to see him go. It’s for the best. Quirrel’s obsession with visiting exotic patches of dirt is probably what Quirrel lives for, anyway, and it’d be nonsense to have kept Quirrel alive long enough just to deny him the things he wants to live for.

Quirrel is an exemplary houseguest to the end. When he goes, the shop is cleaner than when Quirrel moved in, the kitchen is spotless and restocked, and the little corner where he’d kept his belongings is swept and empty. (It was only a week ago that Quirrel had actually unpacked.)

Quirrel ties his headscarf around his head again, neatly tucked around his broken half-mask. His movements are so perfunctory that Lemm feels a bit like he’s watching a customer tie off a business transaction. “The first stop will most definitely have to be the Mask Maker,” says Quirrel, in such a cool sort of voice that makes Lemm wonder why he’s even telling Lemm where he’s going. “They’re in Deepnest, if you’ve ever been.”

Lemm grunts. He’d joke about how he’s not the traveling type, but this seems like a uniquely unkind comment to make at the current moment.

Quirrel picks up his nail with a look of strange ambivalence, then his tiny pack of supplies. He hesitates.

“If everything goes according to plan,” Quirrel tells Lemm, “I could visit everywhere I’ve been meaning to in Hallownest in a month. I think—for my own reasons—I’d like to see the Blue Lake one last time before I leave Hallownest for good.”

“Oh, you’ve decided on leaving Hallownest, then?”

“I didn’t come to Hallownest to leave it half-unseen,” says Quirrel, “but I suppose I also didn’t come to Hallownest to stay here, either. To my own surprise, it seems that I’ve got the rest of my life to go elsewhere.”

Good for Quirrel, Lemm thinks. If anyone deserves to get out of this graveyard, it’s him. Then Quirrel hesitates again, which is twice in a row; Lemm’s never known him to be such a hesitant type.

“I won’t bother you again if you’d rather be left alone,” says Quirrel at last, “but if our paths were to cross once more at the Blue Lake… I’d be quite happy if this conversation isn’t the last we’ll have.”

The idea that Quirrel might willingly want to spend more time with him is so strange that it’s nearly repulsive. Lemm has no idea what expression he’s making. “I’ll think about it.”

Quirrel nods once and waves. And then he is opening the door, and then he is closing the door, and then he is gone.

Just like that? Quirrel had said, when Lemm suggested that he could leave. He’d sounded surprised, like it shouldn’t be that easy to pick up and leave.

The door remains shut. Lemm sits back down at his desk.

The rain pours outside.

Eventually, Lemm stands up and re-opens the door, like he might expect to see Quirrel standing there as he used to in one of his odd trances. The hallway is long and empty. Quirrel is gone.

Just like that, then.

 

*

 

Well. Lemm is happy for him, he supposes. It was obvious from the start that Quirrel had one love of his life, and it was travel. Better to get the pining over with and get Quirrel back to the traveling he so obviously adores. Speaking personally, there’s very few things in this world that Lemm despises so much as unnecessary, prolonged pining when everyone could just get over themselves and get on with it, so thank god that’s over with. Now Lemm can go back to his usual, solitary ways, before he ever brought home any strange bugs from the shore of the Blue Lake.

The day after Quirrel leaves, Lemm visits the Hollow Knight’s memorial again. It’s the same as it always is: tall, silent, and soaking wet. Lemm studies the plaque again, like he used to, with concentration uninterrupted by any pesky roommates and their drama. And he doesn’t have to share his umbrella, either. He gets to stand in the middle of the downpour, completely untouched by the rain, like he used to.

“I suppose you must have thought you were doing the right thing,” Lemm tells the Hollow Knight’s statue. “I suppose it’s always hard to willingly lose things if you don’t think it’s the right thing to do. Nobody likes losing things. Which is why sacrifice is oh-so noble, probably. Like how loss is noble. Or grief. People think pain is cute when it’s on other people.”

The statue remains as it always was. Silent, rain-soaked, and a terrible conversation partner.

“I suppose you must have never had any doubts, to go through with it,” Lemm tells them. “That must have been nice.”

Chapter Text

Quirrel goes to the Relic Seeker’s shop on the day he’s supposed to go to the Blue Lake. He supposes that’s his own particular bad habit, haunting old places; maybe traveling is only his way of haunting new old places. He figures there’s no harm in haunting the Relic Seeker’s shop one more time.

For better or worse, the shop is empty.

Just as well. It’s time to go.

 

*

 

The Blue Lake is a place Quirrel has been before—in his first life, then his second life, and now he feels like he’s seeing it anew in a third life. He hasn’t the faintest idea of how he got from the second to the third. It is as if he just kept going, and somewhere along the way he’d been reborn into some other form, but he can’t quite remember dying. Life just moved onwards until, in hindsight, it’d had a shape and reason all along. All of a sudden, at the speed of watching paint dry, Quirrel is still alive. And he’s still sitting on this lake shore, with the same nail he’s always had, looking at the waves, as if nothing has changed.

At the first sound of footsteps, he looks over his shoulder to see the Knight padding across the sand. Their cloak trails in the debris. Their nail rests along their back. Their mask is expressionless as always. “Looking well, my friend,” says Quirrel. “You’re just the same as the last I saw you. Come to sit by the lake shore with me one last time?”

The Knight stops next to him, but doesn’t sit. (They’re too small to really warrant it. They’re the perfect height to have a conversation with when Quirrel is sitting and they’re standing, really.)

“It’s very beautiful, isn’t it? I believe I’ve already said as much, but I’m very lucky to have seen this place.” Quirrel looks down at his lap, where his nail rests easily across his crossed legs. “Beautiful place to visit. Perhaps not a beautiful place to live.”

Instead of responding, the Knight points to his face. “Hm?” says Quirrel, and the Knight draws a line around their own eye.

Oh, yes. That. “I decided to keep it,” says Quirrel, and traces the same shape across his own mask, where the new edges have been redrawn.

The acid had worn away nearly half of it, leaving one eye entirely exposed. Where the edges had been jagged and uneven from the acid’s bubbling chemical reaction, they are now smooth and sanded into a sustainable shape. The little craters where acid droplets had splashed have been cleaned into proper circles and refilled with darker porcelain.

“I might get some looks, but I’m not the only person who’s ever had a half-mask.”

The Knight tilts their head. Of course they do; their mask goes all the way around, like a proper eggshell. The Knight makes everyone else look like an exhibitionist.

“And the Mask Maker did say it wouldn’t be too dangerous to keep it like this,” Quirrel adds, before the Knight could wonder. The design might not be as stabilizing for the soul as a round mask, but not dangerous for his health by far. “Besides,” says Quirrel, “it’s a bit like an old thing that’s become new again, isn’t it? There’s no reason to get rid of it. It wouldn’t be right, even. It’s got the scars of changing. The marks of a life lived.”

The Knight ducks their head. Quirrel tries not to be too fond of them; they’ll be separating soon, after all, and there’s hardly a decent way to keep in contact with a fellow traveler. This very well might be the last time they see each other. Still: If Quirrel’s right, and the seals of Hallownest converge in the Black Egg Temple, then the Knight has kept their purpose waiting for quite a while. Sooner, rather than later, the Knight’s quest will come to an end, and they’ll have to say goodbye and move on.

Maybe life requires change, and change requires a little dying, in the end.

But only a little.

“I assume you’ve heard from our mutual friend that I’ll be leaving Hallownest?” Quirrel asks.

In response, the Knight does sit after all.

Quirrel smooths one palm down the length of the nail’s blade. The inscriptions, feather-thin and light, are barely whispers against his fingers. “Well, I’ll be on my way soon enough—the first place on the list is Snowy Shore, if you’ve heard of it.” The Knight shakes their head. “Fair enough. I haven’t the faintest idea where it is, so I’ll have to figure that out, first… It’ll be an adventure, that’s for certain…” Quirrel looks at the Knight side-eyed, as if the Knight might be scared away. “And you? If you don’t mind me asking, where will you go?”

The Knight doesn’t move.

“Come, now. Were you not called to Hallownest to undo the dreamer seals?” And then, without malice (to his own surprise), Quirrel says,  “I hardly think the Madam would appreciate her death being squandered.”

The Knight does not reply.

If Lemm were here, he’d probably say it smells like procrastination. But then again, Quirrel can understand. Undoing the seals once and for all would mean the end of Hallownest, and the end of the quest that brought the Knight here. What do you do with yourself after something like that? Where do you go? Who do you have to become?

Goodness, the Blue Lake really never changes, does it? For everything that’s happened, something about the Blue Lake—something about Hallownest—makes Quirrel feel like nothing has changed or will change whatsoever, and not in a particularly good way.

“I won’t ever remember everything, I don’t believe, but to break the seals…” Quirrel scratches at the new edges of his mask. “There’s someone in Hallownest you’ve come to see, isn’t there? Whether you knew it nor, you came to Hallownest with a purpose.”

After a long silence, the Knight nods.

“Have you done all that you need to before you break the seals?”

Another silence. The Knight nods.

“Then is it not time to go?”

The Knight looks down.

If Quirrel had known what he’d find in the Teacher’s Archives, he would have procrastinated, too. Knowing that a monumental shift in your life is coming up would fill anyone with dread, even if it was a good shift. It’s one thing to prepare for such an event logistically. It’s another to prepare your heart, which always seems to require one thing or another, like a finicky garden. Even knowing that time is of the essence, that lives depend on your actions, the changes in the world remind Quirrel every time that each phase of life is nothing more than a passing dream.

For a wild second, Quirrel wants to offer his nail to the Knight, to say: here, as Monomon gave this to me to keep me alive, I give this to you to keep you alive. But that would be, more or less, ridiculous, considering that the Knight has a perfectly wonderful nail, so clearly crafted for them and them alone. And it’d be no good to haunt the Knight with his expectations or burdens.

“Someone told me a long time ago,” says Quirrel, “that the road ahead might be lonely and dangerous, far-reaching, wilder and stranger than we could ever imagine, and to take my nail with me to keep me alive.” (Did he know what Monomon had asked of him, unconsciously, when he told the Knight that the dead should not be burdened with such things?) “Although you might know the way forward to break the seals, would I be wrong to assume that it will be dangerous?”

The Knight’s returning stare seems unimpressed.

“I suppose it wouldn’t be any fun if it weren’t difficult,” says Quirrel, amused.

The Knight scratches their own cheek. Tilts their head. What false modesty from such an accomplished fighter.

“Then when you fulfill the purpose that has brought you to Hallownest,” Quirrel says, “I hope to one day see you still alive on the other end.”

The Knight looks sideways at the nail in Quirrel’s lap, then up at Quirrel himself, at Quirrel’s half-mask and acid scars. Slowly, they nod.

“Is it time to go, then?” Quirrel asks.

The Knight nods.

“I’ll be just another moment. I have a few more dues to pay. Are you ready?”

After a moment, the Knight does not answer. Their mask gives nothing away. They only look back at him, like a perfect, empty doll, before they stand back up. Without any further explanation, they turn and go, one step at a time, back the way they came to the dark tunnel back to the Resting Grounds. Always was an odd creature, them. Quirrel watches them go.

Just before the black of the tunnel swallows them whole, they stop. Hesitate. They look back, as if, for once, uncertain.

Quirrel nods.

Without further ado, they turn back around and disappear.

 

*

 

Quirrel hopes they will not hesitate before their fate. Quirrel is trying not to hesitate before his own.

Lemm still hasn’t shown, so Quirrel supposes that’s that, then. It’s best not to stay too long. Blue Lake, like Hallownest, is a wonder that makes Quirrel keenly aware that he’ll forget who he is if he stays too long. It’s time to go, even if it’ll make an unsatisfactory end to his curious friendship with Hallownest’s Relic Seeker. Maybe that’s just how these things tend to be. Nothing dies with ceremony, unless it is premeditated murder.

At last, Quirrel wedges the nail Monomon gave him deep into the shore of the Blue Lake, not a few feet where it’d been when he’d been here last, in just the same way: point down in the sediment, inscriptions shining down the blade’s face.

So much work and love went into such a weapon. That nail went around the world, let alone across Hallownest. All of Monomon’s wishes for him to live on, for him to survive the Wastes, to carry her heart and soul on his back, all of his past work written on the metal, all of his past selves, every old place he’d ever visited and loved…

He hesitates one last time over the nail. Maybe he should take it with him after all. It was a gift, wasn’t it? It was his nail, for him, about him, of him. She had meant it with love, after all. He can’t help facing it squarely, like a knight before his lord, one last time.

“Please understand,” says Quirrel. “This nail will keep me alive as you hoped. But before I can live again, I bury my regrets here with it.”

And I bury you with them.

Quirrel bows once, shortly, as you would at a gravesite.

“Thank you,” he says.

“Are you leaving that there?” Lemm asks with incredulity.

Quirrel nearly jumps out of his shell.

He turns, and there’s Lemm. Standing on Blue Lake’s shore with his fishing pole. The familiarity hits Quirrel with such violence, for a moment he fears he has fallen into a dream again. But no, already the differences between past and present are making themselves known. Lemm’s pole isn’t leaning casually against his shoulder, it is held in a slack grip by his side, forgotten in his incredulity. He has no bag in his other hand (where would he keep the caught fish?), and the entire look of him is a lot more harried than Quirrel remembers.

“Lemm,” says Quirrel. He’s trying to sound warm, because he is happy to see Lemm again, he really is glad that Lemm finally showed up, and not the various other shades of… less pleasant emotions. “You’re looking well.”

“Right, right, hail and well met. You’re going to stick a priceless work of art in a pile of dirt and gallivant off into the sunset?”

“I believe that I have to,” says Quirrel. “That nail was given with love and a sincere wish, and I’ll carry them both with me for the rest of my life. I know it is inscribed with the greatest act of kindness I’ve been fortunate enough to have received in my life. But I never wanted the weapon, Lemm.”

“Good, yes, excellent poetry, but that’s worth hundreds of thousands of geo, Quirrel! That thing is a work of history, let alone art! Good gods, if you won’t take it with you, then—”

“I forbid you from graverobbing my nail,” says Quirrel.

“Oh, it’s a grave, now?”

Quirrel waves a hand. He’d done it just for his own peace of mind; explaining such a thing makes it seem silly even just to think about it. “Of a… symbolic sort.”

Lemm eyes the nail. “So there’s no real body in that grave.”

Quirrel sighs. “It’s complicated, Lemm.”

“It’s metal, it kills things, it’s worth outrageous amounts of money…”

“The person who made that nail for me,” says Quirrel, “is dead.”

Lemm stops talking.

“She was never buried.”

“Ah,” says Lemm, having the nerve to look both disappointed and wrongfooted at the sudden honesty.

“I’d rather not carry that nail nor her corpse with me. It is time that I laid her to rest.” Quirrel gives Lemm a narrow-eyed look. “I reiterate that I forbid you from graverobbing my nail.”

Lemm clears his throat. “Good gods. If you wanted a symbolic grave, the entirety of the Blue Lake would work just as well, you know. It’s free, even. And isn’t a priceless historical artifact.”

“And yet sometimes, living a new life means leaving old things behind. Is it not you who taught me that?”

Lemm stiffens. “I taught you no such thing.”

“Maybe not in those words,” says Quirrel, and brightens, remembering now what it is that he’d decided to say to Lemm over the last few weeks of traveling alone. “But I’m glad you came, because I need to thank you for it.”

“...You’re thanking me?”

“For sharing your home,” says Quirrel, “and your food, your time, your patience. Without it, I would not have chosen to keep going and travel again. All the days I live and all the sights I see from now on will be thanks for your audacity on this very shore.”

Lemm’s entire face is red. “You—what—my audacity? What kind of backhanded compliment is this? Why do you need twenty words and a dictionary to say ‘thank you’?”

“It’s not like the process of you changing my life is a field of roses for anyone involved.”

“I changed your—excuse you! You watch your mouth!”

“Goodness, Lemm, expressing gratitude isn’t a dirty word! I’m just being sincere—”

“I owe you an apology!” Lemm blurts out.

He looks distinctly unhappy to have to say such a thing, but not grudgingly, or because of embarrassment—he just looks uncomfortable, like he doesn’t know what he’s doing and would really rather do anything else but admit it. How unfortunate that Quirrel is so well-versed in Lemm’s varying tones of gruff. This might be distinctly the most uncomfortable apology Quirrel’s ever received himself by virtue of Lemm’s uncomfortableness. “I didn’t want you to leave thinking that I meant what I said,” says Lemm. “Because I didn’t.”

Oh, Lemm. Leaving only an apology unsaid weighed so heavily on his heart? After all the things Quirrel’s left unsaid in his life—lives, even—forgetting an apology is an impossibly light crime. Truly, Lemm is the better of the two of them. “I shouldn’t have asked,” says Quirrel. “I knew that you could never bear to part with your shop. We both have our callings, and there’s no reason not to stay true to them.”

Lemm looks even unhappier now, which doesn’t seem right. Quirrel tries another tack: “It’s for the best, anyhow. This way, the Teacher’s Archive could be studied for all the secrets it contains—or not, if you’re not interested. It could be yours to do as you wish.” He pauses. “I’m not entirely sure there’s anyone else in Hallownest who’d even know the first thing to do with the Archive, honestly.”

“I suppose I should get started,” says Lemm, in the same sort of way someone mentions laundry day was yesterday and they’d rather not be reminded. Quirrel tries not to stare too openly. He’s never, ever heard Lemm so unenthusiastic about any sort of excavation project, let alone the Teacher’s Archives, which Lemm was falling all over himself to explore not a few weeks ago. Or is Lemm just that uninterested in anything to do with Quirrel anymore?

“...Picked up any new projects since I’ve left?”

“Not in particular,” is the (absolutely bizarre) response.

“Truly? How do you pass the time, then?”

“It passes on its own.”

“Not going to spread out your toolkits all over the shop now that I’m out of your hair?”

“It’s not my fault the shop is too big for one person,” says Lemm shortly.

Now Quirrel’s studying him. Really studying him.

“...Well, if I find any relics on my way, I’ll be sure to send them to you.”

“With what, the Hallownest Postal Servi—”  Lemm stops. “‘If you find relics’?”

“There’s relics all over the world, Lemm. You of all people should know that where there’s history, there’s relics.”

“I know that! It’s not like I was born in Hallownest. I learned to crack open a sealed relic elsewhere like everyone else.”

Quirrel tilts his head. “You collected relics on the road, before? Were they not as interesting as Hallownest’s?”

“I’m not Hallownest’s Relic Seeker. All relics are fascinating, Quirrel, if you’ve got the know-how!” Lemm pauses. “I just won’t pay geo for some of them.”

This is not the first time that it’s occurred to Quirrel that he actually knows very little about the person he’d been living with for weeks, perhaps months (although who could really know in Hallownest). For that matter, with the extent that Quirrel’s kept his own past lives to himself, they both seem to have spent an unusually large amount of time cohabitating while knowing not even the first thing about each other. Maybe the second thing and the third thing and also the last thing and everything in between, but not even where Lemm had come from and why he loved relics in the first place.

But they’re parting ways, aren’t they? What does Quirrel have to lose by asking? Make Lemm even more upset at him for prying into his business? The worst that can happen is that Lemm declines to answer. “Why Hallownest, then?” Quirrel asks suddenly.

Lemm takes his time responding, so long that Quirrel becomes certain that he’s just going to ignore him altogether, until: “No people here,” says Lemm at length.

Quirrel laughs shortly.

“Don’t laugh like it’s a joke,” says Lemm. “You’ve heard the rumors, too. You must have. I heard this was the place to go if you wanted to find your dreams and never see another living soul again.

Something about the way he says that makes Quirrel pause. “That sounds…” (What’s a delicate way to say ‘like a special kind of solitary hell’?) “...very... ascetic.”

Lemm grunts. “For someone so full of secrets, you’re terrible at lying.”

“No, no, I mean—well, I did mean it when I said that sounds ascetic, although you and your hoard of trinkets is rather the least ascetic lifestyle I know of—”

“—me and my hoard of what?”

“—but even if it’s not the life for me, if it makes you happy, then as I said, I wouldn’t be the person to stand between you and the life that suits you.”

This is when Lemm says, in his usual, haughty, proud tone of voice that it suits him very much, thank you. “It does suit me very much, thank you,” says Lemm, in an unenthusiastic tone of voice that bugs often reserve for talking about in-laws they’re mostly able to tolerate.

An echo of a stone falling from the damp ceiling above into the lake plops into the silence. How odd, that such a small noise can highlight how truly, unbearably quiet it is. And without that noise, the silence hangs even heavier than before. Before Lemm arrived, Quirrel wouldn’t have called the lake side quiet. Now it’s almost more than he can stand.

Quirrel can only imagine how that newly-highlighted silence would grow. Would hang heavy upon him, until he escaped into the wide world beyond, which was many things but never truly still the way Hallownest could be.

He’s got nothing to lose. He and Lemm will be parting ways no matter what if he doesn’t ask. He can ask this question. For the sake of all the dead gods, Lemm never shied away from asking a single uncomfortable question about Quirrel’s life, and Quirrel’s a better person for it, isn’t he? It’s no crime to return the favor.

One good deed goes around and comes around, doesn’t it? (Quirrel braces himself.)

“It… does… make you happy, yes?”

Lemm does not answer for a moment or two. Then: “It makes me happier than the alternative.”

“The alternative?” Quirrel says, as though he were cave walls throwing Lemm’s words back at him.

“You’ve seen how I can be,” says Lemm. “I’m not exactly good company.”

Now Quirrel really does know it’s not a joke, and laughs anyway, because what else is he supposed to do with a statement like that? “Goodness, Lemm! I’ve never heard of such nonsense,” he says, and leans over, trying to catch Lemm’s eye, but Lemm keeps turning his face away in such a slight movement that Quirrel might think it was accidental. “Did you think I invited you to travel with me because you were bad company? Of course not! The joy of traveling would be all the more vivid for your company.”

Lemm gives him a sharp look.

“Which is a shame, that a relic seeker shouldn’t be parted from his relics, but I’m only saying that, in a hypothetical scenario in which a certain relic seeker were to change his mind, I certainly would not be the person to say that Lemm the Relic Seeker isn’t ‘good company’…”

Lemm smacks his fishing pole against the shore and rounds on him at last. “Gods dammit, Quirrel!” Lemm cries. “Is that where you’re going with this? Trying to make me come with you on your road trip again?!”

“Me? Ask a second time? Never!” says Quirrel. “If you’re determined to stay with your relics, then with your relics you will stay. I’m only observing, out loud, in your general vicinity, that there was more than a few relics on the open road, not to mention the whole new fields of relics in any place you could visit, and that for all your fears of being unpleasant company, I’ve yet to find such fears anything other than unfounded.”

“Go somewhere else and observe it!”

“Wait, I have one more observation—”

“Quirrel!”

“—because it occurred to me while I was traveling to see the Mask Maker that leaving your shop doesn’t mean you can’t even come back, does it?”

“None of your business to be wondering about me while you’re getting your focus fixed!”

“You can hardly blame me,” says Quirrel. “It was a rather long journey, and there was nobody else with me. Oh! I also observe that it seems rather silly to rule out travel on account that you don’t get along with other people.”

“You’ve never even seen me hold a conversation with anyone but you and your kleptomaniac friend!”

“Well, you won’t be traveling with tons of other people, anyway. You’d be traveling with me, so it’s only my opinion that counts. And I like you just fine.”

Lemm doesn’t respond—again, again, how many times is he going to answer with silence? Quirrel’s never known Lemm to be so hesitant. And just then, a horrific image pops into Quirrel’s head with the conviction of a killing blow: of Quirrel and Lemm parting ways here, more or less peaceably despite whatever uncomfortable conversations they might have almost had about the “first thing” about themselves that they’re only now getting around to, and Quirrel going back to the open road to scavenge for travel partners where he can (which he doesn’t mind, truthfully), and Lemm going back to his shop, in the pouring rain, and sitting alone at his desk. Projects spread out across the shop desks. The kitchen growing cold and stale. The sound of rain substituting for the sound of another voice. Quirrel really quite likes Lemm’s sense of humor, you know. Would anyone else ever hear it again if Lemm goes back to his shop now? He wonders: did Lemm see, with this terrible conviction, the worst possible end that could happen when Lemm had first found Quirrel on the shore of the Blue Lake all those months ago? Is that why Lemm had insisted? Is that why Lemm wouldn’t leave? Is that why Lemm didn’t give up?

“Just one trip,” says Quirrel, a little more forcefully than he’d intended. “You can go right back to your shop if you don’t like it. You needn’t commit. I’ll bring you back home myself. And your shop will still be there, perfectly preserved…”

“Someone will break in and ransack it while I’m gone and you know it.”

“There isn’t even anyone in this kingdom anymore. Nobody’s going to steal your relics. Come on, Lemm,” says Quirrel. “Think about it. There's countless new relics for you to find out there! There's nothing truly that special about Hallownest, in the end. What do you really lose, just to try it?”

“Are you really so lonely that you need me to hold your hand?” Lemm says irritably.

“Sure,” says Quirrel. “It’s definitely me who is the lonely one. Please, Lemm, I don’t know what I’d do without you. One trip.”

Lemm stares at the Blue Lake with nearly murderous intent. The waves are close enough to nearly brush his feet, like Lemm’s going to stomp off into the waves out of sheer irritation.

One,” says Quirrel.

“—Fine!” Lemm cries, and throws his hands in the air. “Oh, fine, you tenacious bastard!”

Quirrel feels his entire face break out into a smile. Him, smiling, at the foot of Monomon’s new grave—good gods, he’s appalled at his own audacity, but he can’t stop himself.

“Just the one! Just to see how it goes! It’s not a guarantee, Quirrel, I’m warning you! You watch—I’ll do the one trip and I’ll be marching right back to the shop to take a shower!”

“There’s ways to take showers while on the road, you know.”

“What, in the rain? Like some kind of wild thing?” he says, with put upon disgust.

Quirrel rolls his eyes. “Aren’t the most sought after bathing spots in Hallownest wild springs? Showering in the rain is not such a trial.”

Lemm gives him a disgusted look.

“...Of course there are inns.”

“So instead I’ll be marching right back to the shop for some other reason I can scarcely even imagine. Possibly diseases. Other horrific bodily harm. You’re the expert traveller, I’m sure you’re picturing a whole menagerie of horrors that will send me scurrying right back here. Beasts. Monsters. Nightmares, even.”

“Of course not,” Quirrel says perhaps just a touch too smoothly. “I can think of no such things.”

“For someone so full of secrets, you are a terrible liar.”

Lemm strokes his beard. He’s staring down at the rocky shore, at his pole, still laying there, and Quirrel knows that Lemm is thinking through things. Thinking about packing up the shop, thinking about locking up, thinking about what things he’s going to need, or what things he thinks he will need. Lemm’s calculating look is so familiar now, and Quirrel feels hope filling his chest.

“I’m going to regret this,” says Lemm.

“Nonsense. You haven’t even done it yet.”

“I’m regretting it already. Regret is already happening. The more I think about this, the more I realize this is a terrible idea, and you’ve swindled me, somehow, with your incomprehensible love of weird dead places, into thinking that I should take up doing physical exercise in the notoriously-dangerous Wastes as a hobby of all things—”

“Then we better get going before you think too hard about it!” says Quirrel cheerfully.

“—while you leave your only weapon behind because of some half-cocked ceremony of a grave! It doesn’t even have a body in it! As if this were not a blatantly terrible idea—”

“Then we’ll bring your umbrella.”

“My umbrella?! You’re going to defend us with an umbrella?!”

“It’ll be fun. Creative. An adventure in new forms of nail arts. Let’s be off!”

Now?!”

“It’s been time to go for quite a while, now,” says Quirrel.

“I didn’t even go fishing.”

“Lemm.”

“This happened the last time I tried to go fishing at the Blue Lake, now that I think about it.”

Lemm.”

“Fine!” Lemm sighs, and Quirrel beams. Hesitatingly, looking terribly out of practice, Lemm gives him a grimace that approximates half of a decent smile back. “Fine, you silly, ridiculous bug. Let’s go.”

They’ll have to get Lemm’s bag, pack up more supplies, lock down the shop. Quirrel was only joking about the umbrella (...mostly), so they’ll need to pick up a weapon, too. Maybe a weapon for Lemm, even if Lemm won’t know how to use it. All the food in Lemm’s kitchen won’t be enough, so they’ll have to raid some other abandoned apartment’s pantry instead—Quirrel can see the road forward clearly, and it is unfamiliar and unknown and soon to be all his own. But even so, when he goes, he looks back, just the once, at the nail buried deep in the Blue Lake shore. In the bright golden light across the blue air, he thinks there’s a soft acid-green in the air, the fizz of electricity in the gleam of the blade, like a memory he still can’t pin down. But then it’s gone again, as quickly as it’d come.

When Quirrel turns to go, he does not look back again.

Chapter Text

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

“We are not walking to Dirtmouth with all these bags when there’s a perfectly good stagway not half a day’s walk away,” says Lemm, ringing the bell vigorously.

Quirrel thinks that Lemm’s going to have to get used to carrying his bags everywhere, but he’s waiting for Lemm to realize he overpacked before Quirrel tells him that he told him so. “That rather takes the fun out of traveling, doesn’t it?” he says instead. “It’s about the scenic route, about walking there on your own two feet—”

A stag beetle skids into view and Quirrel cuts off himself off. Gods, he hadn’t really expected a stag beetle to still be in the stagways, really.

The Old Stag, as he introduces himself, is so delighted to see new passengers using the stagway that Quirrel can’t help but be charmed, and he forgets all misgivings about taking any scenic routes. They’ve loaded their bags before Quirrel remembers he doesn’t remember anything about how to use the stagways, and most certainly doesn’t remember the signal for Dirtmouth.

“Oh, it’s no trouble,” the Old Stag says peaceably, as Quirrel helps Lemm get onto the Old Stag’s back. “I throw no stones for forgetfulness, seeing as my own memory is not what it used to be! But I know the stagways—wouldn’t forget them on my life. I can take you both to Dirtmouth with no trouble at all.”

The Old Stag’s barely gotten out of the station before Lemm speaks up: “Excuse me, Mr. Stag,” says Lemm, in a polite tone of voice that should have warned Quirrel long before the words came out of Lemm’s mouth. “I’m not native to Hallownest, so I don’t exactly know the species around here. I heard from someone a while ago that stag beetles have rather fragile legs, and so delicate that they never heal if broken—”

“Lemm?!” Quirrel hisses. “You can’t just ask a stag beetle about what happens if their legs get broken—”

“I haven’t heard that in a long time,” says the Old Stag, in the same mild, unoffended rasp. He doesn’t even sound winded, let alone slow down. “I’m afraid to say that’s entirely false.”

“—it’s what?” Quirrel blurts out.

Lemm, slowly, turns to face Quirrel with a delighted expression, and Quirrel is abruptly certain that Lemm knew exactly what answer the Old Stag would say before Lemm ever asked the question.

“Ahh, if I remember right, it was a rather nasty urban legend back in the day,” says the Old Stag. “Well, the part about stag beetles’ legs never healing right is true! But that’s hardly a good reason to be put down. No, the legend is the farthest thing from reality. Why, my second cousin broke his leg right around middle age—tragic run-in with the Deepnest tram—and went on to have a lovely career later on as an accountant. Couldn’t run the stagways anymore, but he sure could run his multiplication tables!”

“Is that so!” says Lemm brightly. “So you’re saying that, perhaps, a stag beetle with a broken leg wasn’t considered useless…?”

“Goodness, no! He turned out to be one of the best accountants his office ever had. Far from useless!”

Really?” says Lemm, beaming at Quirrel.

The Old Stag goes on: “Needed the biggest pair of spectacles you’d ever seen to read a tablet and more than a few assistants to write the numbers down for him, since he really couldn’t hold a pen without proper fingers, but he lived to a ripe old age and quite liked his career in the accounting department. Ah! That takes me back. He got paid rather well for it, too, if I remember right…”

Quirrel, slowly, sinks down in his seat and pulls his headscarf over his eyes.

“Admittedly, of course, it wasn’t easy for him to go from being a stagway runner to a desk jockey,” says the Old Stag, “but it’s hardly the end of you! No, hardly worth any dramatics at all.”

Quirrel pulls his hood down over his face.

“Imagine that, thinking you’re useless over a broken leg!”

“Yes, Quirrel, imagine tha—”

“I get it, Lemm.”