Three very normal days of acclimating, rearranging the spare room to feel a little more like my room, and catching up with Lady pass before I run into any strange characters again.
It happens around midnight, when sleep is evading me and I decide I’m feeling restless and want to walk to the nearby grocery store for snacks.
The cool night air soothes my addled mind a bit, and I can feel my thoughts untangling themselves as I walk at a leisurely pace. I did a lot of aimless walking back in the human world, as a way to busy my body with a physical task rather than with a nauseating loop of aimless fretting. Doing it now is a strange combination of comforting and frustrating. Comforting because it’s familiar, frustrating because it’s a small reminder that not all of my problems could so easily be left behind when I crossed over into Duen.
In the formless darkness, checkered street lights etch a pathway marred by a single silhouette. It’s distinctly humanoid in size and shape, something long sitting on its shoulder. It seems neither a threat nor to have noticed me, so I continue walking towards it, working with the assumption that it’s just some other wayward soul seeking the comforts of night air.
Though a small spike of anxiety does get the better of me.
Ten, twenty seconds later, my path intersects with the silhouette’s, and I’m minding my business like I haven’t seen it at all.
To my great dismay, it speaks to me anyway.
?: As I thought. The unmistakable stench of a human. It’s been a while.
Stop or go? I could pretend I didn’t hear anything, but the word “human” freezes me in my tracks. With a pause, I look at the silhouette to start sizing up my opponent.
Though he isn’t that much bigger or broader than me, his eyes shine with mischief beneath a curtain of hair and a pair of horns. A folded umbrella rests stately and unthreatening against his shoulder, and his posture is relaxed and proper, though I can’t take this to mean he isn’t still potentially capable of harm. Not with a duenkhy I can’t recognize.
?: Don’t make me repeat myself, creature. I know you heard me.
JUN: Okay. How did you know I’m a human?
?: Have you no listening skills? They must be making humans stupider these days. To save on production costs, perhaps?
He giggles to himself behind one hand. I remain unmoved. Yet, again to my dismay, he moves closer, peering at me like I’m some unusual new fixture. Up close, I can’t help but notice his pretty, slender face and silky black hair, so long that it drapes behind him like a cape. His purple complexion doesn’t ring any bells for potential guesses as to what duenkhy he is.
?: Oh, fine, have it your way. Let’s cut the bullshit before this conversation gets any duller.
JUN: This “conversation” has mostly been you talking.
The snarky reply comes out before I can filter it as an intrusive thought. Normally I’m very good at holding back my less desirable comments, but something about this guy elicits an uncensored response from me.
Rather than offense, something inappropriately akin to delight crawls across his features.
?: When you’re right, you’re right, Jun! You’ve got me there. Forgive me if I’m not as eloquent as I normally am. It HAS been so dreadfully long since the last time I met a human. Maybe fifty years? A hundred? Oh, who knows. They all smell the same.
JUN: Hold on, how do you know my name??
?: Oh, let’s just say this city and I are intimately aware of each other. Let’s just say the people here are my delightful little lambs, and I their shepherd.
JUN: Let’s NOT say any of that weird stuff you just said. Let’s say how you know my name.
?: If we must be so literal, I heard from someone who heard from someone who heard from Lady that she had a new pet and the pet’s name was Jun. Satisfied?
JUN: Sure. Are we done here, or do you wanna tell me why you’re messing with me?
?: Who’s messing, sweet little Jun? Do you take me for a vulture?
It occurs to me that his languid steps are directed in a circle around me. I feel the hair on my arms start to prickle.
JUN: Who are you?
?: They call me Krystoff. Because it’s my name. I keep an eye on the going-ons of this zone. So of course I’m curious about the putrid little human that Lady let in. After all, that isn’t something that happens often, and I imagine you’re still curious about the rules of this world.
This statement catches my attention, considering Lady has brushed off my inquiries about how the world works thus far. I try to stifle any interest in my tone, knowing that the second this guy knows he has something I want, he’ll probably make it difficult.
JUN: What rules are you talking about?
KRYSTOFF: Not terribly surprised she didn’t tell you about them. After all, it isn’t much unlike your earth tales of The Garden of Eden. The fruit of knowledge is both a tool and a wretched curse. It’ll bind you to our soils if you know.
JUN: Hm. Well, I trust Lady, so if she didn’t tell me, it’s probably safer that way.
There’s a nagging shred of doubt in my mind about that, but I don’t express it.
KRYSTOFF: Maybe. At the very least, I think you ought to know that you only have about a year here before Duen will spit you out. After all, it’s best for you to bide your time and make it worthwhile, do you not agree?
JUN: A… a year?
This is the first I’ve ever heard of an approximate timeframe for a human remaining in Duen. The rumors have said anything from days, to months, to several years getting spirited away from you, but as everything surrounding Duen is superstition, wives’ tales, and rumors, there’s obviously no real way of knowing what’s true.
KRYSTOFF: By my calculations.
He reaches out, and before I have the chance to flinch away, his fingers spread coolly across my face. Normally I would run, but the points of contact flash with what is undoubtedly some sort of magic. It reminds me of what crossing the barrier between earth and Duen felt like.
KRYSTOFF: Yes. Give or take a couple of months.
He retracts, and conspicuously wipes his hand on his pants. Rude ass.
JUN: Wh-why are you telling me this? Do you want something out of me? I’m kinda in the middle of something, so…
KRYSTOFF: Oh, far be it from me to interfere with your FAR more important midnight ice cream excursion or whatever it is this is all about. Fine, I’ll be going, then, but if you have questions, don’t forget that I’m the one who can answer them. And I might even be able to help you with your problems, little Jun.
JUN: Stop calling me little Jun. I don’t even know you, pervert.
His face practically splits in half with how mirthfully he smiles at the insult. I regret giving him the gratification, now.
KRYSTOFF: Nice meeting you, too. Good night, neighbor.
And with that, he wanders off into the night, leaving me to mull over his ambiguous nonsense. I’m a little agitated and confused, and yet I have this odd feeling of calmness and clarity that didn’t exist before. I can’t quite place why or what caused it. The thought of only having a year here certainly disappoints me, but I suppose it is also nice to have that be a known quantity rather than a mysterious factor looming on some distant horizon.
Ah, well. I’ll figure this all out later. I’ve got a date with an energy drink and some chips.