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  • Writer's picturePaige Regan

Chapter Twelve

Knight ascended the stairs.

He had been doing so for hours. Days. Maybe minutes. It was impossible to tell; the limestone staircase was narrow and dark, lit only at his feet by a light source he couldn't detect. It wound endlessly. The only indication that he wasn't walking in the same place were the occasional alcoves he passed by. Knight tried to count them, but the number would muddle in his mind, and he would need to start over. 

Knight knew he was dreaming. A familiar dream, repeated since childhood. How often had he ascended this staircase, comforted only by the yawning silence that ate the noise of everything around him? Illness did not affect him here. His breath did not shorten, his lungs did not burn. Knight scaled up into the darkness as a ghost would pass through walls.

Something waited for him at the top.  The deep-seeded urgency in his gut goaded him forward. The drifting scent of cedar and bergamot wafted ahead, faint but enticing. 

Knight had never reached the top before. He had no inkling as to what awaited him up there. Was it even worth the effort? Perhaps there wasn't even a top to reach. This was a dream, after all. 

He climbed anyway.

Vibrant yellow eyes watched him from the next alcove. An owl sat perched on the stained glass window sill–there was only pitch blackness beyond the glass–and swiveled its head to peer at him. Knight nodded a short greeting to the owl and kept climbing.

It was not unusual to see creatures in the alcoves. Sometimes they were animals. Other times, they were… less refined. Hunched creatures with melting faces. Beasts with tusks and hands and eyes in all the wrong places. Knight could not be certain if they were animal or man, but he kept to his polite nodding so as not to offend.

He added up the alcoves again. He had lost count.

Out of the corner of his eye, Knight saw a bulbous black spider weaving its web in the next alcove. The silver web was intricate, swathing the nook in thin strings that shimmered as if weighed under fresh dew. The spider–the size of Knight's palm–did not pause its ministrations, but Knight had the sense that they were watching each other. Waiting for what was to come.

A pit of dread tightened in Knight's stomach. He dragged his feet, knowing what would come after the spider.  His movement was pure impulse as his body moved on its own.

The gong sounded.

Its loud, pulsating beat thrummed through the floor. Knight walked faster, his heartbeat pounding in his ears as the gong reverberated in the stairwell.

Knight knew in his core that he must not look back. He didn't know what followed him, or what waited ahead. But he could not look back. He must never look back. 

Foreboding pushed him forward. Each deep timbre of the gong shook through his skull. Knight could feel something behind him, following him up the stairway. Tension coiled in his limbs as he broke into a sprint.

Light flickered at his feet as whatever it was behind him gave chase. Knight glimpsed new things in the alcoves as he passed: thick, velvet drapery. A snake. Two gold rings. 

None of them held his attention for long. Shadows nipped at his heels. Death lingered in their touch. Knight was close to the top–he could feel it in every step. If he could reach the top, he could live. He could go home.

A chill grasped him from behind.

Knight awoke with a shuddering gasp. He bolted upright in bed, one hand clutched to his thundering heart while sweat-soaked sheets twisted around his legs. His clothes were drenched, clinging to his limbs like a second skin.

He never reached the top. 

Knight climbed out of his bunk and peeled off his clothes, scavenging the room for a fresh pair. Aroth, his limbs ached. He tried–and failed–to release the tension from his body with simple stretches. It was only a dream, yet Knight felt as though he'd barely escaped death once more.

There was no point in going back to sleep now; he needed to calm down. At the very least, he needed to find some fresh sheets for his bunk.

The dimly lit halls of X were even creepier than his dream. Knight kept close to the wall as he shuffled through the empty aqueducts, unnerved by their silence. He was unused to the deadened quiet that surfaced at night. His own footsteps grated on his ears, their echo resounding through the cavernous halls. The residents of X were usually asleep at this hour, with the exception of those with missions that would carry on through the early dawn. Without their chatter filling up the headquarters, the aqueducts felt truly abandoned.

Knight shook his head in a poor attempt to dispel his unease. The dream was affecting him more than usual. He just needed to find the linen closet, grab some clean sheets, and return to bed.

As he ventured further down the halls, though, a familiar sense of dread settled in in his stomach. 

You're awake, he told himself. You're awake. But that did nothing to fight the heavy sense of foreboding that weighed on his shoulders. He crept forward, each footstep slower than the last. Maybe it was best to turn back. How badly did he need clean sheets anyway?

Knight turned, but a peculiar sight caught his eye: a snake, slithering up the wall.

No, not a snake. A doorknob. A brass handle in the shape of a snake stuck out from a nearby door, its design elegant and out of place. Knight vaguely recognized the handle from a few of his explorations through the aqueducts, but he had never ventured inside.

Knight traced his fingers along the snake's spine. The handle was unexpectedly warm under his touch. He pulled the latch, and it clicked softly as he stepped inside.

An office filled with moldy, gilded luxuries. Knight paced slowly through the room, his gaze drifting from the musty bookcase to the brocade chaise beside the desk. A picture of King Jack hung on the wall, his face marred with knife wounds. 

Knight had a sinking suspicion he knew whose office this belonged to. He needed to leave. Immediately. That would be the smart thing to do. Instead, Knight lingered. 

Something stirred inside of him, the very feeling that compelled him up the stairs in his dream. Knight explored the office, drawn from one piece of cracked decor to another, then pushed aside the damp, heavy velvet curtains that covered the back wall.

He expected to find some bricked-up windows or a flat cement wall. Instead, recessed into the wall against peeling wallpaper, sat a heavy oak armoire. It was plain and unassuming. Boring compared to the rest of the intricate decor in the office. Yet, Knight felt drawn to it. Two golden hoops were hooked at the front for knobs, and Knight did not hesitate to pull them open.

A grotesque face stared back at him. It was exactly as the stories described, with one head of a stretched-out jackal and the other of a long-fanged serpent, both pressed down into the abdomen of an arachnid. Large, feathered wings extended from its back while a scorpion's tail stretched from its rear. The onyx figurine of Aroth stood as the centerpiece amidst a series of charms, candles, and what Knight could only guess were offerings. He didn't dare guess what the dark liquid in the silver goblet was. 

One candle sculpted to look like Aroth pulled at Knight's vision. None of the candles were lit, but this wax sculpture melted, dripping black onto the oak shelf. Aroth's faces melted, their eyes hollow as he whittled away.

"It isn't polite to go through someone else's belongings."

Nausea crawled through Knight's stomach as he clumsily stepped away from the shrine, turning to face Charien head on. The older man cocked his head, his smile thin-lipped and annoyed as he gently closed the armoire's doors and returned the curtain to its original state.

"S-Sorry," Knight stammered, finally finding his voice. He stumbled back toward the door, putting as much space between himself and the assassin as he could. It had been a mistake to enter. He should have returned to his bunk when he had the chance. Knight glanced at the portrait of King Jack again and winced. Charien had excellent aim.

The assassin turned, and there was nothing kind in his gaze as he scrutinized Knight from top to bottom. "What were you doing in my office?"

Knight racked his brain for a way to escape before Charien decided to use him for target practice. "I didn't know it was yours."

"Oh, I'm sure. Rest assured, there is nothing of use for you here." Despite his thin smile, his words were as cold as ice. "If it is Alice you're looking for, rest assured, she is safely tucked away."

"Alice?" Knight didn't mean to speak his confusion aloud, but it was too late.

Charien looked at him–really looked at him–and his disdain melted into neutral indifference. "Oh. You're not him–you're the other one. Forgive me, you two are remarkably identical. Why, in this light, no one could tell you apart."

His words landed like a threat. Knight stumbled as Charien approached, backing him against the door. 

"I'm sorry," Knight said again. His heart ricocheted through his chest. "I didn't mean to disturb you."

The assassin leaned forward, his skin over-perfumed with the scent of roses. His smile sent a chill down Knight's spine. "Don't worry. It will be our secret." Knight nodded swiftly, too afraid to disagree. "Lovely."

Knight fell through the door as Charien reached forward and opened it behind him. He barely caught himself on the floor before Charien shut the door and clicked the lock shut.


"Knight. Knight."

"I'm up," Knight said, teetering on his lab stool as he sat upright. Norma gave him a skeptical look from across the table. 

"Sav, why don't we take a break? Mind grabbing me a cup of tea?" she said, turning to the redhead at her side. Sav shrugged, tossing her lab coat onto a hook before she left for the cafeteria. Now that they were alone, Norma leaned against the table, concern written on her face. "Did you have trouble sleeping last night?"

"Is it obvious?"

"You were drooling on the belladonna." Norma gestured toward the poisonous round berries on the table. Knight blushed.

"Sorry," he muttered, then stifled a yawn. "I couldn't sleep. I had some… weird dreams, and then…"


Knight contemplated keeping the discovery to himself. Charien had already threatened him with it being a secret, but Norma had proven herself to be trustworthy. She hated Charien as much as the rest of them, and from what Knight had come to know about her, she wouldn't breathe a word of what he said if it meant bringing trouble to her lab.

"I found something weird in Charien's office," he admitted. Norma's brows bunched together tightly.

"What were you doing in his office?"

"I went for a walk last night and got lost," he lied easily. "Anyway, I went into his office, and I found… He had an Arothian shrine. I'd never seen one before."

"Oh." Norma raised a brow. She cleaned one of the tubes they'd been working with. "You said you had strange dreams?"


"You must've still been dreaming, then. All Charien talks about is how he's going to Erestelle." Norma snorted, unable to contain the derision in her voice. "He'd be lucky if Evonry took her as chow for her damn dogs."

Knight had considered that he might've still been dreaming. He might have believed it if it weren't for the fact he couldn't fall back asleep after what he had seen. The image of the  jackal and serpentine's melting faces was still fresh in his mind. Knight knew what he had seen–but if Norma wasn't going to believe him, that wasn't a fight he would put up. Even telling her in the first place had been a risk.

"Yeah," he mumbled. "Must've been a dream."

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