A hot meal, a warm bath and an evening talking to the Dryad Azerna led the young Witchwolf most commonly known as Aibek to a late evening before bed. Locking the door, they climbed into bed, and fell into a slumber almost instantly.
The dream was familiar, somehow. A room, calming images on the walls. A pattern on the floor - the symbol of the Aibeks, hidden among the pattern of the carpet so only those who knew what to look for could see it, woven in blues and pinks and whites. A mirror dominated one wall, catching Aibek's eye - and the image in it was there own reflection, although perhaps not one any who knew the Witchwolf now would recognize.
And behind, another figure. Dark skinned, with eyes closed a small smile on his lips. Armin Aibek. "Hello, Aiday."
Aibek enjoyed the talk with Azerna, explaining what the shadow archon knew of their changes in eyes and form, showing Azerna the maps and notes they had made of the Towers, particularly the unusual flora and fauna they had come across, and spoke about their plans to gather some native tree seeds and local concerns that Aibek thought Azerna might be interested in. After asking about things the shadow archon could do to help the dryad, Aibek went to bed. Well, a bed that likely looked a bit more of a nest of blankets and material. After carefully locking and triple checking the door, undressing and brushing their untameable dark hair, and arranging things carefully for the next morning, Aibek placed a bag of fresh dream tea that they had acquired at the top of the bed before curling up and wrapping themselves up snuggly...
Aibek looked at their own reflection wistfully for a few longing moments before looking at their sibling's reflection in the mirror. After a careful investigation of the carpet, they pulled a piece of charcoal from their pocket, and completed the ritual as trained. Drawing their symbol on their part, and watched as the dream her sibling had created blended the black marks into the colourful pattern before the older witchwolf stood upon it.
With a small almost nervous smile, Aibek replied, "Arman...I've not been called that in some time, but I guess it would be odd for you to call me our family name as the others there do. I believe I owe you quite some gratitude with your help with that...creature in the Towers. I'm glad you responded so quickly...and that you've gotten back in touch." relief clear in Aibek's dark grey eyes that stayed glued on the younger Aibek.
Arman shrugged with a small smile. "It was...a disease, in the world of dreams, like a creeping moss that covered all it touched. If it had gotten free, it would have grown into something all who Dream would have had reason to fear, one day. I should thank you. Your and your friends rid us all of a great evil."
Sitting next to Aibek, he looked at the mirror. "If your...old...way of looking disturbs you, you can change to whatever makes you more comfortable." Arman looked at Aibek for a moment, obviously wanting to comment on it, but settled for, "I think I preferred it when you dressed to dance."
Aibek glanced towards the mirror, "It doesn't disturb me - but it's...it's like the name. It's just not something I've seen in a while. Sometimes, those dances feel like they were a dream - if I could do this so clearly on my own anymore. I haven't danced in ages..." Aibek took a deep breath and their attire changed slightly, though not to what they wore now in the waking world. A long dark robe covered the shadow archon, obscuring the old clothes underneath - and most of Aibek's form. The witchwolf pulled it close around themself.
Aibek looked down from Arman with a sigh. "When that collector was destroyed, all the shadows it had broken came to me. It has made feeling them harder - at first I couldn't at all and now...the sorting and smoothing is taking a while, it hurts at times, and I've yet to separate theirs from the rest, I just get...bursts of them now and again. And when it died, it felt like...the attention of others were there." Aibek chuckled sadly, looking back up to the younger Aibek's grey eyes "It's never simple, is it?"
"The planes are all connected, and that things had drawn the eye of more than us." The Dreamer smiled. "They watched from other places, though, so I cannot say who or what was there." Arman paused for a moment. "It changed you a great deal, defeating that thing, didn't it? More than just strengthening your connection with the Shadows."
Aibek pondered what their sibling said for a few moments before shrugging and sighing, "Maybe. I don't understand it all. It hurt seeing what it was doing, seeing it ripped the other's shadows, it brought back so much...so much rage and pain and now...now I see Sezim's eyes when I catch my reflection..." Aibek motioned to the mirror. "I see Inkar everytime I fire a shot - my shadowblade bow feels and looks different, I have shadows moving out of me like never before...and I see Ayaulum and her summonings. I see Gulnaz when I move and I'm not even bound to her."
"I know going back is dangerous, I made my choice, I won't risk them or me...but..."
Aibek looked over at Arman and chuckled, "It feels so good to talk about this...even when finding the words are hard..."
"I always preferred the images of the Dream. It conveys more. But words aren't too hard, if you don't over-think things." Arman chuckled. "It is dangerous, but following the heart often is. You're getting stronger. You have people who'll help. Perhaps one day, perhaps not too far away, return will be an option. For all of you."
"You know over-thinking is my speciality. they said with a flourished bow, Gulnaz once said she wasn't sure how someone could over-think so much and be so reckless at the same time..." Aibek said with a warm laugh, remaining tension rolling out of the shadow archon as they finally sat on the floor next to their sibling.
"I think some of the refugees may help, some of them seem to like me... maybe, together, I can solve the mystery of who in Khalharum knows enough to recognize a bound shadow creature on sight. Or at least help finish the maps and notes and gather supplies for the town. I don't know...some days it is all that keeps me going and other days I push it aside because the hope of it feels too distracting..." Aibek said as they lounged on the floor.
"Someone recognized what you are? Interesting. That city is an old place. I can feel your ties to it, now. It sounds like finding those willing to help will be an important part of your tasks." Arman raised an eyebrow. "And remembering to take care of yourself. A city leader must be a glorious example, not a horrible warning."
Ties? City Leader? Weren't we just discussing how returning might someday soon be a realistic option for me? Aibek said with a disbelieving laugh.
"I spent years in Archon Adilet's court, but...leading? I wonder if my way will even...fit or help or work in a 'councilor' or whatever the Nexus calls me. You know how I like my mutually beneficial arrangements, how I strongly dislike overlooking people or treating them as tools like a Nihiloi or a more realistic less malicious example a Sh...but if those with ties of blood or...as the least connected to Zhen Halfblood, how much say should...
Aibek laid back of the floor, trying to breathe slowly while flexing frustrated fingers. "Words are hard. Faces are words hard too. Being bound was better, I could paint an emotional picture beyond my words to them at least. And having someone know that excited and worried me, particularly that they haven't said anything, they just wrote a letter. I got it at the same time as father and Eteri's. Right after that guy with his current present prophecies. That city is old and odd..."
"Being a leader in one place doesn't mean you can never return to places where you weren't." Arman shrugged a little. "Maybe returning with a little power and respect will make the difference you need. Let's be honest - Zhen called for an Aibek, and he got an Aibek. That it wasn't the one he may have wanted doesn't mean it didn't work, and knowing what I do of the old monster, I doubt you fooled him, so he must have been happy enough. You're connected to the Tower now, just as you're connected to the Shadows." The Dreamer paused. "What letter? What prophecy?"
"Zhen Halfblood's letter was for Nurasyl and he called me your name. Maybe you're right or maybe the poison made him less perceptive - he never really met us so will only have mother's letters to go on, but like you said - an Aibek was called, an Aibek answered. On that Plane, sometimes, I think that's all we are..." Aibek said with small shrug.
"Khalharum has a man, Xandrius?, and he told me something, said it wasn't really a prophecy but like what was likely to happen based on what people were currently doing or feeling and usually accurate. He called me Child of Kosali, said mother found the nest empty, flock gone, and she was coming on wing and fire. Like I told Elie and Grimrod, based on my knowledge of mother that suggests a bronze dragon...I thought the nest and flock bit were redundant reiterations of us all being gone - you're here, I'm in Khalharum, Eteri's gone on one of her wind wanders and Nurasyl's yet to return as of father's last letter -- but now Zhen Halfblood's body's missing... I'm starting to wonder if it's not more than us that might set mother off - that did seem a bit odd - but if more might go missing...more connected to mother and/or Zhen Halfblood... " Aibek looked up in thought, rolling ideas in their head, before looking back to their younger sibling.
"He said this just before delivering the letters. I had one from father - who mentioned being concerned about you, one from Eteri, and one very neat letter - looked like it hadn't traveled much - from someone who knew what I am. They welcomed me, asked how the unforgiving light of Khalharum made me feel...and specifically noted my being 'created' meaning they know I'm made and bound. They didn't sign it, just ended telling me they would send another letter soon - but one creature's soon is another's eternity... I've seen little sign of anything Shadow Plane related other than collector but it's been rather busy, I could have missed something" Aibek concluded, voice a mix of worry and hope.
"Oh." Arman coughed. "Well, yes, that might be a bit of an issue. Mother being unhappy would be...bad." Kosali was, after all, an extremely powerful Witch. "As for the Shadows...well, I doubt the Collector was sending letters, or frankly allowed out of that tower. Trust your instincts on this. If they say someone else in Khalharum is linked to the Shadow Plane, you're probably correct."
Aibek nodded, lost in thought for a few moment, "There are so many factions in the Shadow Planes...whoever it is is quite good at hiding. I kinda hope finish making these maps will maybe give an idea of who could be involved or any signs of other connections. Khalharum is very different...if it can be linked to Elysium...finding a thinning here is not beyond imagination. If I could find one, set up trade like the Vakana of old, maybe get a message through...maybe..." Aibek said with a small smile.
"For now that's just...my main concern is what could set mother off - is it linked to what is happening in Khalharum and/or with Zhen Halfblood and how to help the people of Khalharum and through helping them fulfill my pledge to make the city great again. A fuller map with notes will help in many ways. Slavers are a big issue - I found myself defending Gnolls because they spoke of them like people speak of our people, it burned to hear" Aibek blew out a deep frustrated sigh
"I've no idea what I'm doing. Grimrod says the first part of the pledge is done, the third to find out who killed Zhen Halfblood and why has a new development some of the others are taking time to study, I'm obviously surviving which is the last part, the make Khalharum great again is...where there is a great lack of clarity. I fear those who have taken this pledge may have very different ideas on this. I already feel the cracks of conflict...and as the least connected to Zhen Halfblood I'm unsure how much say I should have..."
"Admittedly, all four of us misbehaving isn't likely to be the reason Mother is hunting. I hope." Arman shrugged. "Your connection is to the city. Zhen was a catalyst. You honour his request because you choose to, not because he made you. But you are one of the rulers of the city, and have as much right to do or do not as the others." Chuckling, the bard whistled a few bars from an old song. One about a supposedly wise king and his obvious oversights. "Not all monstrous creatures are monsters on there own. You'll likely have to fight these Gnolls, if they're slavers, but maybe not. Or maybe you can find some part of them that is better. Your friends will need to learn not to judge by what things are...although given what they are, you'd think they'd have learned that by now." He glanced over. "You do know that the pretty girl who stayed in the waking world is mostly dead, do you not?"
Aibek smiled at the tune, they had always enjoyed their younger sibling's musical flare, and then raised their eyebrows, puzzled for a moment, "Pretty girl... pretty girl... our tastes may be different - I tend to notice sweet over pretty, the only one I know with the touch of death is Azri, having seen her use it to intimidate enemies on a few occasions... She doesn't really talk about it though... at least around me. I'm more concerned the conflicts she may have with the people living here than with me at this point..." said with a shrug, still looking a bit puzzled for a few moments before relaxing again.
"No one makes me, I pledged. I pledged in front of them to make this city great again and find out why Zhen Halfblood was killed no matter the unknown risks; I pledged to our family and clan that I would not risk myself or others in my attempts to return to the Shadow Plane to fulfill the pledges I made to... " Aibek said with a hand gesturing vaguely towards the mirror to imply what was left unsaid.
"The one thing Nurasyl and I have in common other than blood is how seriously we take our pledges - I just do them far far less often. I can't even imagine the soul of light that is our elder sibling misbehaving - they likely just ended up in a promise that somehow actually challenged them and it's taking longer than expected..." Aibek said somewhat dismissively, hiding years of hurt from their voice. Nurasyl had spent much of their childhood being everything this Aibek lacked - strength in battle, easy magic ability, courage and diplomacy and a cool head with everyone else - and making sure this Aibek knew they not reaching any of the bars of mastery. After over a decade apart, the two siblings continued the safest option of just ignoring each other that had been instilled in younger years as the only way they wouldn't fight...
"Or he finally got laid and relaxed." Arman grinned sheepishly. "In an infinite universe with countless realms, it is possible. But, yes, most likely he ended up making a promise that was more difficult to keep than most." The dreamer sighed. "I will try and look into what happened to Zhen. I might know someone that can get some information, if I can find him. What do you know about his death?"
Aibek could not hold back a laugh, almost falling back on the floor for a moment, before shaking their head in a chuckled sigh. Their expression turned solemn as they pondered Arman's question.
"Poison, Time's Thief, caused him to rapidly age to death. Zhen Halfblood found out... shortly after the Pactmasters offered Khalharum to him as payment for something. Many things were tried but none succeeded. A slow assassination... " the shadow assassin said like putting pieces of a puzzle out slowly on a table.
"They chose a method that prevented outside casualties and allows the victim to tell others what happen to them, but without broadcasting who was responsible or offering a cure, it is ineffective as a threat or message. If anything, the execution suggests knowing was either unimportant or an obstruction to whoever chose it. A delayed direct assault without risking injury. If whoever took his body is the same as who poisoned Zhen Halfblood, they likely wanted to keep the body intact without too much harm but either didn't need or was willing to forgo better condition... " Aibek gave as an educated guess with shrug and pained look. Aibek regularly felt they could see the pieces to situations but lacked the ability to connect them together properly compared to many others, and trying to do so over Zhen Halfblood's death and disappearance felt strange.
"I never got into poisons, umbral ones always seemed more risk that they were worth. Have seen others use them well on some Sworn who thought fighting in the Shadow Plane without being able to fight with dimmed vision or blind was a good idea..."
"Then it sounds like the city is key to furfilling that part of your oath," Arman mused outloud. "Given your training, you might be the best to look into the poison used, too. Unless one of the others was trained as an assassin." Frowning, he added, "But it's kind of unusual to steal your victims body, isn't it?"
Aibek shook their head , blowing away black stands of hair before responding, "Not something I ever did... it would make very little sense especially how they did it. Make more sense to kill someone where you want them. Likely, if it the same ones responsible for both and knowledge of them obstructs their goal, they'd use separate people for each task to both limit exposure and gain the best specialists for the job... but like I said, I never got into poisons nor stole bodies so I'm at a loss there. Some of his kin are going to do the first investigation. I think it's hoped that, as they know him best, they'll be able to spot specific to him issues. I'll look over what they've found when they come back if they want me to do so..." Aibek concluded with a shrug, slow rolling thoughts passing into front of their mind's eye as a small soft smile grew on the older witchwolf's face.
It's nice though odd to talk about all this with you. I haven't really talked so much in a while, especially not about that stuff - assassinations and shadow court life. It's still hard... being back... I know it's been months now but... I still wake up sometimes dazed, lost in the light and trying to figure out why I can't feel... Aibek gestures all around themself before squeezing their hands into tight fists. Taking a few shaky deep breaths, they pull the dark robe firmly around themself again. "Then I remember, and try to hold onto... just for a bit before facing everything else... "
Aibek looks at Arman quietly for a few moments before shrugging with a tense sigh, still tightly wrapped up "I've never been good at choosing easy -- what looks easy often gets complicated quickly in my experience -- and you have been around more than anyone so I dun't know what you're apologizing for. You may need to apologize to our parents for your recent 'trip', but you've always been there when I needed you and then some... and you've saved lives so... no need to be sorry to me..."
"I appreciate your confidence in me... I just don't know what... nothing feels... this has all become more complicated than I thought when we had that last meal together before I left with that letter... "
"'Life is complicated because it lives.'" Arman smiled, the words having the sound of a quote. "But it does get easier. And while I should probably pop back up - soon - in the real world, I'll try and help while I can. If nothing else, your city is a fascinating place. The history of it is like a weight, sinking into even the dream realm. What is it like?"
Aibek nodded in silent agreement that Arman should return soon to the waking world. The words 'while I can' caught on Aibek's ears, but they pushed it aside as their eyebrows shot up at the dreamer's description of the city.
"Khalharum is... complicated" Aibek commented with a laugh, It is a living city, even now in pieces, especially now that the Nexus - this magical powerful... system woven through it - has started reawakening and connecting again, first with those with symbols. Aibek said and after a few focused moments and deep breaths, the Alhazen goggles appeared in the dream resting on Aibek's head. They adjusted them for a moment before continuing. "It's still... broken though and a lot is still unknown. It feels both massive and impressive while crumbling and lost at the same time. Neither the city nor its people are anything like I expected... I think rebuilding and strengthening the connection between the city, the Nexus, and the people will be vital for anything done to last long in the harsh environment... Aibek concluded, lost for any other words while looking at their sibling.
"I appreciate the help. You can come back after you visit the clan, our parents... though I know finding my sleeping mind is a lot harder these days. I've wondered how you found it in the tower in the first place, my sigils don't usually work well over long distances... I even bought dream tea herbs to put in my room afterwards - I know it's not supposed to work that way..." Aibek said with a shrug while gesturing around them. Just having the tea leaves should not make any of this easier, but Aibek always tried to carry them and regularly bought fresh ones just in case. An odd old wolf's tale that had become habit or maybe just a fond reminder...
Aibek listened, pondering for a few moments. "Disturbance in the Dreams? The only dream related things I can recall is the creature... and Nexus brought myself and the others Zhen Halfblood sent into a weird dream -vision before it started reconnecting... said to prove one's worth by finding a symbol, four were needed to activated it further - mine" Aibek tapped the goggles "was the third, Ayreth's was fourth."
"The dream was vivid, the first one I've had without you in months, since... and the Nexus sounded... pleased with themself even as they recounted the city's fall and how much of them had been broken over the years. That could match somewhen... Oh and after I picked up a colourful relic at a Saren Rae temple near Katapesh. Knocked me and the others out for...a week I want to say. No vivid dreams then though I think the others may have...but I just had my usual lines, moving shapes, there were voices... I can't recall what they said now... I remember freaking out when I woke, strange bed and I was all tangled up in the bedding, I could hear some of the others talking, and..." Aibek looked away in thought, shaking away their thoughts after a few moments before continuing .
"I can ask others if they've had any weird dreams... Azerna or Elie may know if weird dreams are more common in Khalharum... or the people who came with us may have noticed a difference since being here... Though after what happened with Khaul and Elysium, it may be hard for any of newer people to know which is causing what for a bit..." Aibek rambled as their thoughts carried their mouth away, grey eyes lost in the distance...
Arman chuckled. The Dreamer made an arms wide gesture "Well, it's certainly going to be a challenge untangling which knots cause which problems. Perhaps with a chalkboard and some calculations...but needless to say, your dream travelled in...time? It was a very odd sensation, seeing it. It certainly gave me enough find this place, and then I saw our former friend lurking. Once you ran into him..."
Aibek nodded, "I had wondered how all that looked to you. He..." Aibek tried unsuccessful to suppress a shudder as images flooded their mind, the shadow archon shifted uncomfortable around before continuing, "He did change things, like you said. Brought so much back up, seeing them and there reflected everywhere... part of me has been seeing it as my connection getting stronger and the possibilities there could be something here that would allow..." Aibek paused, glanced over to the mirror with a sigh and then back to Arman.
"And another part of me realized from dealing with him and all the things he brought up, that I have no idea how to accept the equally likely reality that a safe return to there...and them... won't happen in my lifetime or, if it does, not for many, many years. I spent over a decade there, built a life...a family of sorts...I'm eternally bound to others...my body entirely changed...I was Aiday, Shadow Champion of Archon Adilet, teammate and partner of Inkar, Ayaulumn, and Sezim in the fight... here, I'm...an Aibek. I was the 16-year-old Aibek when I left, now I'm the 29-year-old Aibek who..." Aibek sighed in frustration.
" Seeing and fighting, and defeating him made me think and feel things I haven't since... I'm starting to think mother and some of the clan are right. My connection to the Material Plane is so... not there that the severing from the Shadow Plane means part of me is... I miss so many feelings and... but doing so seems either disingenuous, dangerous, or like I'm insulting those I'm bound to even though I'm very aware that they could already have... or not want me back after... I have no idea how to live there, not as a person I recognize. My pledges are all I've got to do and I'm not sure how longer they'll be enough..."
Arman paused. "You're connection to the Shadow realm doesn't mean you can't have a connection here too. I know you miss them, that you feel the need to return, but you need to be able to do it safely. This city might be an answer to that. Even now, it's sleeping form hums with an ancient power." The Bard hummed a distracted tune. "You'll be happiest if you can meet them all again. Even if things have changed, it's an answer - an end or a coninuation of your tales. Right now the story is in limbo, without end or conclusion, and the mortal soul rebels against such incomplete tales." Arman laughed. "Especially if it's your own story."
Aibek shook their head, laughing which ended with a sigh and a few moments of silence. The shadow archon mused for several minutes, "My story does seem complicated and incomplete. I do miss them, miss how I felt with them...and I'm not saying I can't be connected to Khalharum, I'm saying that they may be right -- even though I was born and raised on the Material Plane, I may not have much of a connection or feeling there anymore...and I don't know how to rebuild it without feeling insincere or like I'm -- betraying them. " Aibek looked down at their hands
"You remember me before I went, you... visited me regularly while I was there, I came back half dead after... Maybe you're right and I'll be happiest when...if I am with them again, and I already pledged I would not put myself or anyone else in danger to fulfill the pledges I made there no matter how strong the pull to return, but if I've learned anything from taking in his victims, to - for now - losing their reliable constant presence is.... Aibek took a deep breath, obviously struggling to find the right words for something important...
"Agonising? Like half your mind and soul has been left behind?" the bard asked. "Your relationships have never been something some of the others have understood," Arman noted with a wry shrug, "And it's not something that I can entirely comment on. Although my own relationships aren't exactly normal either." Arman considered for a moment. "Maybe if you can find the other person or people connected to the Shadow Plane you'll be able to send a message. If they can be trusted. Especially if someone catches your eye on this plane."
Aibek raised their eyebrows for a moment, thinking, "More like 3/4ths really, but I was thinking more how valuable those feeling are to me - and that all I've felt in a long time is anxiety and loss and made myself busy to forget the rest of what I need. I like my relationships, no matter what anyone else thinks they mean the universe to me. I spent most of our childhood getting in trouble for being affectionate, I spent over a decade with them...still getting into trouble honestly, and now I'm not sure what I can or should do, if I can or should..." Aibek continued thinking aloud in a worried tone.
"Getting a message through would be great if I can find a way, if I could find a thinning or who sent that letter it will certainly be a priority, and explaining being a witchwolf is hard enough for most, I'm not exactly sure explaining that I've irreversible had my body altered and bound myself to three other people who I still deeply care for and still care for all that is there..." Aibek said in a long breath, gesturing towards the mirror, ...but left them to save their lives and city and now...just getting that far feels ridiculous before thinking about anything else I may... I'm surrounded by people I'm kinda terrified to know I'm...not... Aibek sighed.
"I made my choice then, I have no desire to change it, I love... I just need to find a way to live now as me, I can't just wait to an unforeseeable return or just be an Aibek forever, it's... so...
"Time heals all wounds, they say, but sometimes it needs a little help." Arman smiled. "In your case you seem to need to find yourself, what you want, what you need. Hopefully helping with the city will let you rediscover Aiday. Maybe some time to find yourself will be a good thing. Of course, you've never been especially good at doing so alone..."
Aibek fixed the younger sibling with a look and a smirk, chuckling for a few moments, "I think I'm a little old for Father's speeches to 'find myself to mastery', which is what you sound like right now..." commented, pointing in jest before reaching over and ruffling Arman's dark hair. "He's never liked my methods... but I'm not... I already know what's in my own head and never found anything new without bouncing them around with others..." Aibek said while gesturing around, a grin growing on their face. The older Aibek stretched before moving to their feet, pacing about with their thoughts. The shadow archon blew out their tension in a long breath...
"I know who I am, most of the time...it's that I don't know how to explain any of that to anyone else, not with words, not without... " Aibek sighed, running fingers through their loose hair, lines of shadows following their fingertips, "Like I said, some of the refugees that arrived with the others and I seem to like me, I have plans to talk to them later this week, and I've been talking to Azerna about things, but in general... I've no idea what I'm doing or how to explain or... Aibek shrugged, again lost for words. "I used to have the excuse of being young or untrained or from a different Plane, now...I just..."
"Bouncing ideas father would have been fine with. It was the sleeping, and not sleeping, arrangements he had trouble with." Arman shook his head. "As for talking to...Azerna? Just be honest. The truth might be too much, but it's something anyone you wish to be close to they'll need to know. And helping refugees sound like a good thing." Chuckling, he added, "I don't think being from a different plane or being younger was ever the issue. You're just a little awkward."
Aibek laughed, "Talking in bed is one of the best ways to get ideas flowing, I find, along with in a tent and a few other places..." Aibek continued chuckling as they kept walking around the small room, stopping and turning at random intervals.
"Those were excuses made for my being a little awkward. 'You're just young, you'll grow out of it', 'They're new here, they'll figure it out'. I think I ran out of those excuses a while ago am still...this..." Aibek said while gesturing to themself as they looked in the mirror for a few moments. "...bit of a mess, I think." with a self-depreciated short laugh.
Aibek turned away from the mirror to Arman with a more neutral expression and tone, "The refugees are formerly enslaved people from slaver ships the others and I came across as we were crossing from Katapesh to Khalharum. Some have arranged transport elsewhere while many stayed. They've built up housing in some long abandoned buildings and worked on the ships and around the city. I'm hoping to talk to them and the local people more while some of others are away on trips for a few months. How much I can help them or the local townsfolk, I'm not sure, but I'm hoping to at least talk to them, maybe arrange some sort of regular meeting discussion group thing".
A small smile began to pull again at the corners of the older witchwolf's lips, "Azerna is... the dryad woman who owns the inn the rest of me is currently sleeping in. The others and I helped clear it from a strange violent split undead thing that had kept her from it. Azerna has allowed us to stay in it free ever since, though I feel a bit awkward about that. I've been talking to her about the maps and notes and plant samples I've started gathering... She was also the first to actually talk to me about the changes after the shadow collector's death. My eyes started glowing, I go incorporeal when I walk unless I focus on not doing so... the new shadows do weird things sometimes. I'm not sure what the others think; none of them have said anything so..." Aibek shrugged, beginning to pace a bit again.
Raising an eyebrow, Arman murmured, "A dryad? I assume 'don't get splinters' jokes wouldn't be welcome, then?" The Dreamer smiled a little. "Your companions seem to take a lot in stride. Perhaps there own lives have led them to a place where suddenly glowing eyes and phasing from reality isn't that unusual." Pausing, he added, "I'm not sure what kind of life that might be, but I suppose it exists, and if any group was going to have it the ones Zhen chose to lead a city would be they."
Considering, he added, "I'm sure you'll help both. Simply having someone ruling the city who thinks of what they need, rather than what the city itself needs, will be a boon to them. Someone who thinks sewers need to be kept maintained rather than a new monument built. And having a ruler who talks to them will help them, too. It's good to have your voice heard, even if it isn't always something that tips the scales."
Aibek matched their sibling's raised eyebrow with a pair of their own, maturely rolling their eyes at the comment before listening to the rest.
The shadow archon pondered Arman said, mixed feelings crossing their face before they shrugged most of them away, "I can't do anything to make a city great, as pledged, if I don't know anything about it. The people living here are the ones who will know what the city needs. That plus making map and notes of the abandoned areas of resources and risks and such is the start to anything, I think. I'm not sure what the others think; may depend on what is found from these latest events..."
"That sounds like a wise move, Aiday. It certainly..." Arman paused. "What is that? Someone else...someone looks lost." Raising a hand, Arman gestured, and a figure faded into view. "Well," Arman said with a smile, "It appears my abode has another guest."
Aibek followed Arman's gaze with focused alarmed eyes. Ignoring the younger Aibek's smile and relaxed manner, the older witchwolf spun to place themself defensively between the figure and their sibling. With a few deep breaths, slowly a quarterstaff appeared in Aibek's hand.
"What is going on, Arman?" Aibek said softly, confusion and tense anxiety filling their voice and posture as they took a step back, though still stood between Arman and the person coming into view...
Arman is relaxed & oozing bardic charisma and charm, while our favourite Aibek is their usual tense overthinking self who, unlike dreamer Arman, isn't sure if you're really here or a dream-figment yet so Aibek is looking at Ayreth very carefully. The easiest way to tell them apart other than their mannerisms is Arman has a rather noticeable large earring in one ear and currently Arman is wearing a purple robe compared to Aibek's dark purple-grey-black-blue shadowy one.
Arman looks pretty much the same as they did previously though a lot clearer since we're in their space. The Aibek Ayreth usually knows looks quite different though they have the usual neck guard as mentioned and their goggles on their head...which is currently uncovered for the first time around Ayreth leaving a lot of loose wild charcoal-brown-black hair down their back. Aibek is wearing a long robe to cover the dark elaborately embroidered armored dress ['dressed to dance' as Arman put it] they arrived here in.
The room has a big mirror on one wall, images - currently relaxing ones - flicker on the others. The floor has cushions and such scattered around the thick carpet that has swirly patterns in it. It's a gently lit, cool, relaxed environment.
The last card is dealt, drawing an odd noise from Redemption. "The Vision? I am not sure what that woul...Ayreth? Ayreth?" Scenes play out in Ayreth's mind until something shifts and the vision is much more real than before.
A small cloud of mist appears in the room on the floor. It starts spinning and growing taller until it reaches almost five feet in height. It begins to take a form that is decidedly feminine. ...looks lost." Raising a hand, Arman gestures and finally, Ayreth is standing in the room. "Well," Arman says with a smile, "It appears my abode has another guest."
Ayreth spins around, her gleaming white, long-sleeved dress twirling around her. The image on the wall behind her shifts to one of the clear night sky as if looking up at it while lying in a meadow with trees just at the edge of the image. "What no, what happened?! Where am I? Who..." Ayreth's eyes gloss over the first figure and focus on Arman. "You... I know you." She points at Arman rather rudely. "You're Aibek's sibling. Did you do this?" Ayreth clutches at her head. "Something isn't right."
I know that you all already know the scene. The transition is just helpful for me for writing and feeling Ayreth's part.
Should Arman also be referred to as "them, they, etc."?
Ayreth is rather frazzled at the moment. I realized that in the Dream is a projection of her consciousness which means Thark isn't along for the ride. In the previous Dream sequence, she was projected into a time before Thark, plus immediate danger, so she didn't notice. In a calm environment like this, she's freaking out at the sensation.
"Well, if I had to guess," Arman mused aloud, "I'd say your friend has some connection to the Dream." Rising to his feet, Arman eased around Aibek. "Yes, I am Arman Aibek. It's nice to see you again, in a situation that is a little more friendly. This is the Realm of Dreams, Ayreth. You're visiting where I live. No one will harm you here." The Bard smiled. "I can create us some tea, if you wish, and you can tell us how you got here."
Yeah, they and them works best.
Ayreth tries to calm herself, but her breathing is still fairly ragged. and her eyes dart around the room. "'Will you walk into my parlour?' said the Spider to the Fly," Ayreth mutters quietly. "Sorry, that was unkind. You helped us out a great deal." Her gaze comes to rest on the other figure. "Tea?...uh, sure." She's trying to put the pieces together, but can't quite get there. "Are you a sibling, too? You look alike."
Aibek glared at their sibling as they walked around them. Still confused and anxious, Aibek thought aloud, "Having a connecting to the Dream does not equal people showing up in your dream place, you have wards and sigils against that Arman..." while gesturing around them, particularly to the floor.
"...and the sigils I made when dealing with that Shadow Collector was only given names in charcoal on stone, too weak to make a bond or lead someone here. And she's not in the inn so it's not proximity." Aibek continued, gaze moving from Arman to Ayreth as they spoke.
"Whatever sent you here is not playing by the rules I know of, which I think is concerning, but Arman knows these things better so them hearing how you got here may give answers if you want..." Aibek shrugged before a long pause, thoughts obviously rolling through their mind as their grey eyes darted about as their expression became more relaxed and neutral before nodding.
"Arman and I have been told that many times, particularly after people mistake us for each other. I am the second Aibek of Meang Kosali and Vakhtang Aibek, Arman is the fourth and youngest Aibek -- and the strongest dreamer I know which is why you suddenly showing up here is...very unexpected."
Aibek turned, slowly breathing and gesturing, and a small low table gradually appeared close to where the siblings had been sitting before. "May as well sit to have tea..." Aibek said, looking to Arman...
Ayreth stares at you as you talk, growing more and more puzzled. She's looking you up and down intently and finally notices the goggles. "Wait, you're... Aibek?!" Suddenly, Ayreth rushes at you at full speed, a flash of red on her feet under the white dress. While she has generally tried to respect your conservative demeanor, Ayreth is an emotional young woman and a hugger. She is definitely coming in for one right now.
If Aibek allows it(don't want to force it on you): Ayreth collides with you, her tiny frame only making so much impact. Not only is her affection coming through, but there is a sense that Aibek's presence is grounding to Ayreth. With her face buried in your chest and her hair covering her face, only some of what she is saying is coming through. "...Zhen's tomb...Redemption...these cards...vision..."
I did say "irrelevant". =)
Aibek stumbles back slightly, more in surprise than the impact at the unexpected and unprecedented affection from Ayreth. Mixed emotions were clear on Aibek's face as they look to Arman in mostly bewilderment and then back to Ayreth a few times before responding as the shadow archon tried to piece together what Ayreth was saying.
Cautiously, gently placing their arms around Ayreth, making no other effort to move, Aibek softly spoke, "Yes, I am the one you know in Khalharum... though - technically - I and Arman are both Aibeks. I can explain the... difference in my appearance and more later if you would like, but first, tell Arman how you got here, what is going on with your kin's tomb, with Redemption and cards. Arman may be able to help you see any visions you had here, in the Dream, if you like." Aibek glanced to their sibling, to the flickering images on the wall, then back to Ayreth.
"Before that though, is there anything you would like with your tea? Time acts differently here, so take all the time you need..."
Arman watched in vague bemusement. The Bard murmured, "Touching." With a small twitch of his fingers, he created a mirror as tall as he was, the frame made of silver with bronze wolves playing along the sides. "If you wish to share what you saw, then just touch the mirror and think of them. It will show us what you saw."
Not yet letting go, Ayreth blows some of the hair out of her face and looks up at Aibek, listening. She nods her head at the instructions and finally some of the pressure is released. "Umm, okay, I can do that. Honey is good. I like it sweet." She disentangles herself from 'her' Aibek, but keeping them within arm's reach. If everyone sits down, she will as well, folding her legs underneath her.
Ayreth takes a deep breath and starts relating the story. You're reminded of how young she is because she starts talking fast. "I don't exactly know how I came here. I guess I should start with Zhen's tomb. We went there to see if we could find any clues as to what happened. It was really beautiful, too, a good place for him." Ayreth takes a sip of the offered tea. "Oh, that's hot... but in a good way." She looks at Arman to make sure he isn't offended. She had already been ungracious earlier. "When we were inside, it was a mess, but something was off. His sarcophagus, which is made out of this neat material called glassteel, looked like it had been broken out of, not in to."
"Well, then, in order to try to figure out what happened, Redemption pulls out these cards. Oh, did I tell you that Redemption was the one guiding us? Well, he was, but you know he only has one arm. So he asks me to shuffle the cards and deal three of them out. The first one he said, 'The Tyrant. An obedience and twisting of the law to one's own benefit, a ruler that has harmed those they rule.' The next card he said, 'The Rakasha. One under the influence of another, forced to bend to their dark will.' And finally, for the last card, I heard 'The Vision? I am not sure...' but then everything faded as I started having a vision, of all things." She takes another deep breath and drinks some more tea, making a contented noise.
"So, just touch the mirror?" Ayreth stands up and approaches the mirror. "I like the wolves." She reaches out to the glassy surface and narrates the images.
Zhen's tomb, undisturbed, his armour arranged like a sleeping knight with sword and shield lying atop it. Frost, fire, ice and acid flowed along the blade in a gentle pattern.
"This is how it must have been before."
A figure, cloaked and shadowed. A raised symbol. A five pointed star painted blood red, cold black flames burning across its surface. A chant in Infernal, compelling aid. The tomb cracks and the figure recoils, crying out. This was not what was expected. This was not what they had planned. The tomb explodes, dust and stone flying into the air. The greatsword launches out, shattering the glass in a flash of magical power.
"So that's why the glassteel was on the outside, but what went wrong?"
The figure, hacking in the cloud of his own creation. He waves the symbol again, a spell to teleport away. Out of the dust a hand reached, and took the blade.
"I mean, that can't be good, right?"
The city, Khalharum. Magic pulsing through the city, like blood through veins, but so much of it was dark, lifeless, cold. And above...something else.
"Why did the vision shift to Khalharum? Is it related somehow? And wait for the end, there's something above the city..."
How tall is Aibek? And is the pronunciation A-bek or I-bek?
I usually tend to put it, Aibek [eye-bek] is a bit tall for a woman and Arman is a bit short for a guy, around 5'7"-5'8"ish
Aibek shot Arman a look on hearing his mumbling, holding a 'behave' gaze with their younger sibling for a few moments. Aibek sat at the table after Ayreth pulled back, tucking their legs underneath them as they sat without much thought, adjusting their robe tightly around them to ensure it stayed closed as they did so.
The witchwolf ignored the tea while listening intently to Ayreth. They chuckled warmly at Ayreth's comment about the wolves, "Neither of us have ever been good at subtlety about much, particularly about our bloodline" Aibek glanced over to Arman and then back to Ayreth and the mirror as the images appeared. They waited until all of them appeared and Ayreth finished narrating them to comment, waiting a long silent moment as they mulled them over.
"As you said, the first looks like an image before the event, the next two seemed to be the event itself. Someone obviously screwed up... I was discussing this with Arman earlier, trying to piece the motives together from the methods whoever is doing this used. I hope this doesn't come across as cold or uncaring, but I worked in the services and court of a ruling Shadow Archon for over a decade and... well, let's just say ruling classes have similarities across the Planes. If I am going to, as I pledged, help you and the others find out why your grandfather was killed, my knowledge of assassinations and politics are the best tools I have, though I have little formal training in the latter."
"I had thought since secrecy seems their top priority, whoever was hiring separate experts for each thing they wanted, but they...they didn't look like an expert to me. With the current information and the cards you mentioned, I still think whoever is a powerful ruling individual or group, but...I'm starting to lean towards ideological talent pool rather than talent specialization. With possession having repeatedly happened, and the second card you mentioned, it's, unfortunately, possible whoever is doing that or similar to Zhen Halfblood. I had been treating Khaul's repeated actions as separate but taken together, particularly with that five-pointed star I'm sure I've seen elsewhere, it may be an ideological group, possibly with goals in Khalharum...though the last part has the least information. It does look like something is blocking the flow in Khalharum, that explains a few things. Aibek concluded with a sigh, glancing to the other two, then down to their untouched drink as they continued thinking.
Following research that doesn't list Asmodeus as a major deity in Tien/the Dragon Empires, I'm having Aibek not have much knowledge of them. I don't imagine Asmodeus sending Sworn after werewolves or the Shadow Plane and it isn't a deity connected to either or Tien villages around there so I can't find a reason for Aibek to recognize the five pointed star that they would have barely seen before they were destroyed even though - having spent a few years running Way of the Wicked - it feels odd having a character that doesn't...
Ayreth's easy-to-read expression keeps changing between puzzlement and enlightenment. It's clear that she can understand the gist of what is being said, but some of subtleties are lost on her. "Thark and I don't know anything about assassinations or politics, so I really appreciate the help. It might be hard to judge how much of an expert the perpetrator is. Sometimes, the slightest unknown variable can mess up a ritual or spell. But still, if you think it's some cult or something, I believe you. I really don't want them doing that to Grampa Zhen." Ayreth bites her bottom lip, clearly worried at that prospect.
"What do you mean about Khalharum?"
Excellent and subtle reminder. =)
Kn: Religion(?): Ritual + Surge: 1d20 + 10 + 1d6 ⇒ (9) + 10 + (6) = 25