Sei awoke to a dull, screaming pain throughout his body.
Myste had taught him Living Dead the night before, and using it felt like getting miq'abob-ed by Odin all over again. Now every breath required a concentrated effort, and he couldn't even begin to imagine how he ever made it to the bathroom to shower off the cold sweat.
All things considered, it could've been worse if he hadn't spent a full hour healing himself with Diurnal Aspected Benefic afterwards.
When U'mikke learned the technique from Fray, she teleported home, collapsed on the living room couch in full plate armour, and slept for over 24 hours before Sei had returned from a hunt in the Sea of Clouds.
She had looked like an exhumed corpse, motionless like that, and it took days before she was strong enough to walk on her own again – and that's with the benefit of three schools of healing.
In short, some devastating things are of little consequence to you and yours when you can mend wounds with aether.
Mostly. Remembering the Vault was like getting run through with an ice pick.
Still, Sei couldn't stop thinking about the many hypothetical rookies who faced Living Dead alone – dark knights, after all, don't exactly form flocks.
Eventually, he got tired of examining his blood-shot eyes in the bathroom mirror, and trudged upstairs for a cup of coffee. Not because he particularly needed one, but habit is a powerful force.
And there, on the huge square-C-shaped couch that took up most of the living room-kitchen combo, sat Myste, daintily nibbling on biscuits from a tin, even though the cottage had been perfectly empty before Sei passed out.
Rielle would be gone for some sort of conjury training camp until the rest of the week.
Sid recently took up hunting to pass the time, due to the troubling lack of Temple Knights around Gridania.
And U'mikke was still off doing something-or-other for the Legion. Somehow it seemed that even Raubahn was helpless without at least one Warrior of Light to do the busywork. Fray had a point there.
The elezen child watched Sei with the usual blank stare.
“Hello”, they said eventually, “You're free to stop standing in the doorway, and come in. This is your house, after all.”
For all of Myste's talk about wanting to help, they tended to be awfully condescending to him. And mostly he took it without a word of complaint – because once the thought that you don't deserve better digs its way inside your brain, you can never be truly rid of it, no matter how much you try.
But now that his senses were flooded with a stale kind of pain and exhaustion? It was like he was young again, and all the world was his enemy.
“Look. Myste”, he began, settling against the door frame in a full-body sigh, “ We need to talk.”
The elezen child made a show of sitting up straighter at that, as if their spine wasn't always ram-rod-straight anyway.
“You can't confuse me the way Fray confused Mikke. I know that I'm hallucinating you. That you're the manifestation of all the ways in which my mind is broken.”
Myste blinked like a bloody owl.
“You know?”, they wondered. “I am not sure I ever tried to hide that fact.”
“You certainly never bothered to make it clear that you don't, in any case.”
“So, what makes us different from U'mikke and Fray?”
“Thing is, Mikke will wipe the floor with me in a game of Verminion every time, but the way she thinks is actually fairly simple, while I overthink everything. Plus, she never considered herself as somebody who might have traumas because it plain doesn't fit the image she's got of herself.”
Myste nodded, as if Sei was stating the obvious. But given that he was effectively talking to himself, he indeed was. He continued anyway.
“Fray was the way she was because in spite of Mikke's tough act, she tries too hard to please everyone. And I know for a fact that Sid hallucinates his parents who guilt-trip him about not having avenged them yet, no matter how many Temple Knights he kills.
Well, and you – you look like Haurchefant because being unable to prevent his death is what I feel the most guilt about. You could've also taken on G'raha's appearance, for instance, but the difference there is that I don't feel personally responsible for G'raha sealing himself in that thrice-damned tower. Just that abstract guilt I've got about everything – and that's not powerful enough for the Soul of the Dark Knight.”
Myste nodded again – this time like Sei had realized something they had wanted him to understand all along. In tht way that radiated 'took you long enough, you colossal idiot', but maybe that was his self-loathing talking.
“You're actually better suited for the Soul than U'mikke is, even if the claymore still weights heavy in your hands”, they said, studying a chocolate chip biscuit. “You're a healer by nature. That means a desire to save as many people as possible, which – in turn – means guilt about those you inevitably couldn't save. And that is a feeling that can be channeled to both destroy and protect.”
“The logic probably goes something like 'if I can't cure the ills which have befallen somebody, I should take their place so they won't be harmed to begin with. Or, failing that, destroy the offending party as revenge.'”
“You're a lot like the real Fray, like that. He used to be a conjurer, originally.”
“And so was the first dark knight”, Sei hummed. “I sense a theme.”
“The theme, if anything, is that only those who know true sacrifice are fit for the responsibility a dark knight bears. And only few are as keenly aware of loss as healers are.”
“Sid's people were hunted by Ishgard until he was the only one left. And Mikke spent so much energy on being the perfect hero for the people, the all-powerful Eikon Slayer, only to be brought low by the Crystal Braves.”
“And that is what qualifies them both for wielding the dark arts.”
Sei considered that for a time, while trying not to slide down the wall he was leaning on. His legs were giving in, and – never mind the coffee – he simply wanted to crawl back into bed, but he felt like he wouldn't be able to get back up again if he did that now.
He flicked his tail in tired annoyance.
“So, the real question is”, he said after a time, “why are we having this conversation at all? As two entities?”
Myste tilted their head, and Sei watched the ripples of their jaw working on a biscuit.
“What do you mean?”
“I have medicine to deal with…with you. I've had you under control for years now. No biting my wrists, no casual thoughts of how much better the world would be for everyone if I didn't exist. So – why are you here?”
A thin-lipped smile spread on Myste's face, sweet and slow like melting butter.
“That, you do”, the apparition said, looking Sei straight in the eye for what might have been the first time. “You would've been useless to the Soul if you didn't. But you can't pretend I don't exist, either, just because you've learned to control me. Not anymore. The Soul isn't going to let you.”
“Because you're the source of my power, is that it?”
“And I am always going to be there, if you need to set the world on fire.”