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