It’s winter in Duen, and time is running out—for me, for Krystoff, and perhaps for the future of Duen as we know it.
Melodramatic? Maybe a little bit. I’ve been reading too much lately. In the past few months, I’ve become pretty damn efficient at the traditional duenkhy language’s reading and writing system, an academic feat I never could have imagined for myself before, but it’s amazing what a little near-death experience and the incoming, inevitable upheaval-of-my-and-everyone-I-care-about’s-lives will do for your drive to accomplish something.
Outside, the neighborhood is being gently blanketed in the first snow of the season, or at least, it was, last I checked. I’ve been holed up in the library for so long, it’s hard to even gauge what time it is anymore. I left my phone in some other room, once a comforting source of reprieve from my studies but now a mere distraction to me, so checking the clock isn’t an option unless I want to uproot myself.
Which I don’t.
I’ve been at it like this all week, and admittedly the exertion is starting to catch up to me. I’ve only had the wherewithal to drag myself to a proper bed here and there, otherwise opting to sleep on one of the decorative study couches, or worse, knocking out on whatever floor or desk I’m studying at. To say I’ve been obsessed might be a little bit of an understatement, honestly.
My studies are no longer a matter of assimilation, considering I’m going to be ejected from Duen soon enough anyway. Now it’s about preparing… learning… arming myself with any small bit of knowledge that could help Krystoff in this conflict.
And… though I know this search is perhaps in vain, I keep hoping I’ll find some documentation of ways I could cross back over to Duen once the barrier has removed me like a splinter from its side. If I could even just keep my memories, I could eventually try to find my way back in. Something. Anything.
I go through shelf after shelf of Krystoff’s collection, tearing through books that he hasn’t even opened himself yet. Learning. Studying. Searching. My spine protests and my eyes sting with exhaustion. Yet I must persist or I will lose everything.
I think of Lady and Calisto at the bar, wondering when I’ll visit them again. I think of Tor and Rafael and the shenanigans they must be getting up to without me. I think about Cassius playing guitar in his garage without an audience. I even think about Shawn, who I’ve seen neither hide nor hair of since I first moved into this neighborhood.
With all my heart, I want to see everyone again. And so, sacrificing my health for the time being, I study.
KRYSTOFF: Jun, are you in here?
I shuffle a few books under others and straighten my posture a little at the sound of Krystoff’s voice. He finds me soon enough—sitting on the floor, surrounded by my controlled chaos.
KRYSTOFF: Th’eciv. It’s three in the morning. Why are you still awake?
He complains, yet he sets a cup of tea next to me while cradling a cup for himself, which means he knew I’d still be up. I nod my appreciation and take a sip, realizing this is the first thing approaching sustenance I’ve put in my body since… I don’t remember.
JUN: Just a little wrapped up in my work, I guess.
KRYSTOFF: Tch. You’ll work your short human life into an even earlier grave if you keep this up.
JUN: So be it, then.
He looks put off, probably having expected me to play off his half-hearted grousing rather than answering so grimly, but I don’t have the capacity to play verbal ping pong with Krystoff right now. I turn my attention back to the pages, marking a few passages that catch my eye as I go along.
KRYSTOFF: I’ve just been… worried, about you. Your energy has been heavy and unreadable of late.
That gives me slight pause from my work, though I continue circling words even as I spare a sympathetic look for him.
JUN: I’m sorry. I appreciate the concern, but I’m doing what I absolutely have to do right now. I don’t have the time to worry about myself.
KRYSTOFF: I understand.
After a moment of internal conflict, he joins me on the ground, neatly crossing his legs with his cup in his hands and Regenald on his shoulder. Regenald’s eye is open and taking in the scenery, but he remains quiet.
KRYSTOFF: I’ll cut to the chase, then, since you’re preoccupied. I’ve been sensing strange energy lately. Other than yours, I mean.
JUN: How so do you mean?
KRYSTOFF: Hard to explain. It’s different. Strong. It’s not uncommon for apparitions to sense large shifts in energy from surrounding apparitions, since that’s how Rotys’lav sensed the tear in my barrier, after all. But this feels…
REGENALD: It is unprecedented levels of power.
KRYSTOFF: …Yes. A bad omen, perhaps. Kaguyos may be preparing to make a move.
JUN: So it’s almost time for Rotys’lav to make his move too, then, huh?
KRYSTOFF: I expect he’ll be summoning us and other apparitions to his sector by the end of the week. There’s no way he doesn’t feel it, too.
JUN: I see…
Meeting Rotys’lav in his territory again is about as good as blindfolding ourselves and handing him a knife. He’ll be at full power and full advantage if he decides he doesn’t need us. I know this, and Krystoff knows this, but he just sips at his tea with a disinterested, far-off expression.
KRYSTOFF: I know you’ll be angry with me for saying this, but I really wonder if I shouldn’t just surrender my soul and sector to Rotys’lav. He is already incredibly powerful, and he’d be exponentially more if I let him at me.
JUN: Why is that preferable to just fighting with him? Is your power worth more if he takes it?
KRYSTOFF: No… but…
And it’s not until the faint sound of porcelain on porcelain reaches my ears that I realize Krystoff’s hands are shaking ever so slightly. His cup rattles against its saucer as he pushes onward with his thought.
KRYSTOFF: I have been… absorbing so much more suffering from so many more people than usual these past few months, and it… pains me greatly. I know all of this is boring and difficult to hear explained, and I hate to explain it, so I’ll spare you the details, but…
KRYSTOFF: I’ve always been ill-equipped to handle negative energy compared to other apparitions. This was not a role I chose, as many other apparitions do, and it was not a role I grew into the way Rotys’lav did. The power that it comes with is not something I handle well or delight in anymore. It is a burden, not a blessing. I have wanted to step down from this role for many years.
JUN: Well, why haven’t you?
KRYSTOFF: I think I always suspected that if I didn’t grow powerful enough to defend myself, Kaguyos would try to kill me one day and reclaim the energy he imparted to me.
KRYSTOFF: Plus, Rotys’lav may be heartless, but he showed me mercy when I was newly formed and helped me navigate my duties. I didn’t want his mercy to be for nothing. Flimsy reasoning, I know, but… it’s all I’ve known.
KRYSTOFF: But now I wonder if this isn’t the perfect opportunity for me. I could sacrifice myself to the noble cause of maybe-stopping my father and finally be at peace. Ah, but I bet you’d be really angry if I did that, hm?
JUN: …Uh, yeah. Don’t you dare.
He smiles at that, light and airy.
KRYSTOFF: Then I’ll push past the pain for you. It’s a threshold of tolerance that I’m not completely unfamiliar with, anyway.
KRYSTOFF: …It just frightens me because the last time I absorbed energy with this much vigor, I accidentally killed my human.
This isn’t the first time Krystoff has alluded to having other contracted humans in the past, but it sounds like he’s finally ready to talk about it rather than just vaguely glossing past it. So I bookmark my spot and close the book in front of me, giving him my full attention.
JUN: What happened to your past, uh, what was that term you used with Calisto… greeted ones?
KRYSTOFF: Hm… I don’t want to scare you.
JUN: You wouldn’t do anything that would kill me.
KRYSTOFF: You believe that?
He says it, not exactly as if to challenge or disagree with me, but like he wants to know just how much faith I have in the idea. Or maybe he’s surprised that I believe it at all.
KRYSTOFF: …You’re very kind, Jun. My very last bond, before you, came to me during a time where I aspired to become more powerful than even Rotys’lav. I was consuming energy to my own detriment, and I was very much so a shadow of myself.
KRYSTOFF: He was a human who’d crossed over for similar reasons to you. He was ready to throw away his life on earth and decided to give himself one more try in the world of duenkhy.
KRYSTOFF: Not all of my greeted ones in the past have been human, of course, but they did all have one thing in common: they were all very miserable existences. I was usually sought out by creatures that were power-hungry, or ready to give their bodies over to a cause.
KRYSTOFF: How to put it? It was all people who wanted to use me or be used. And so, it wasn’t uncommon for those who signed a contract to die while in my service. But this human was different. He wanted to live alongside me. He wanted to shun his humanity and become an apparition as well.
KRYSTOFF: He was… well… I think if you’d known him, you’d think he was quite evil. But I was no better. I took as much as I could get from him, and he let me because he adored me. But in my unrelenting state, I bled him dry and killed him.
KRYSTOFF: It was a pain unlike any I’d ever known. His moments of fear and betrayal before death were the most wretched feelings I’d ever absorbed, and it made me monstrous with energy for many years after.
JUN: That’s why Rotys’lav tried to kill me in front of you, isn’t it?
KRYSTOFF: You’re very observant these days, Jun. Yes. He wanted to coax that power out of me again.
REGENALD: The young master had not made a contract in a hundred years prior to you, Jun. That last contract… grieved us both deeply unlike any before it.
It’s unusual for Regenald to voice a personal opinion on anything, rather than just henpecking at Krystoff’s words and feelings, so to hear him express sorrow over this lost human really underlines what a tragic event it must have been for him and Krystoff.
REGENALD: Though he came close to making a contract with that foolhardy fish a few years back, thank the makers he did not succeed…
KRYSTOFF: Excuse me, did I give you permission to air out my personal laundry in front of an audience?
REGENALD: You just told Jun that you murdered a human in the throes of your obsession with power; you really mean to tell me your humiliating fling with the fish is off the table?
KRYSTOFF: Stop! Stop talking!
Krystoff actually covers his ears and looks deeply agitated, but Regenald prattles on.
REGENALD: Do you really, really and truly, mean to tell me, young master, that you find your hysterical affair with the bartending sea-dweller more unspeakable than being so mired in malicious, selfish ambition that you lost sight of everything that mattered to you in the physical realm?
KRYSTOFF: Fuck’s sake, Regenald!
He squeezes Regenald shut, but there’s no mouth on the umbrella or anything, so this does very little to silence Regenald’s barrage. I can’t tell if Regenald is trying to lighten the mood by changing the subject—and don’t get me wrong, it’s working on me—but Krystoff actually seems to prefer the heavy topic over the funny one.
JUN: Thanks for sharing all that with me, Krystoff. I appreciate the transparency.
KRYSTOFF: Huh? Oh. Yeah. It’s… fine.
JUN: We’ve been working really hard to prepare ourselves for this final battle, huh? It’s taking a toll on me. And I see now that it’s taking a toll on you. Maybe we should call it a night and get some rest.
KRYSTOFF: I can’t say I disagree with that.
He floats into an upright position and smoothes out Regenald, somewhat apologetically, before resting him on a shoulder again. He waits for me to get up, too, saying nothing, but the invitation to walk together clear. I smile at that.