Taping the mirror, Arman murmured, "You are all connected to this city now, and the city connected to you. Perhaps the issues dealing with Zhen are so tangled with the issues of the city that the threads cannot be untangled. But your city is still healing. The magic flows like blood, but most of the city is still only getting a trickle at most."
Ayreth recognized the symbol - the holy symbol of Asmodeus.
Aibek pondered for a few moments, thoughts flashing across their eyes before they spoke, "Finding a way to see if anything is hindering Khalharum's healing will be important, I will talk to Azri and the Nexus about it when I can. It may be that whoever is responsible is taking advantage of the city's weakened state... or maybe wants to channel that power for just themselves but so far have been unable to".
"If it's an ideological group with their eyes on Khalharum's power, it would explain some of the events prior to Zhen Halfblood's murder - people being hired to go into the Towers, Khaul's hiring and what they've done in the city under requests from their employer which look like they've been in play for quite some time. People who so far do not want to be named or openly challenged, who saw Zhen Halfblood as enough of a threat to avoid confronting...but also an opportunity to avoid damaging him. So many pieces, it's hard to see how they fit together. Aibek concluded with a sigh.
"Still don't think the person is an expert though - doing anything in this region without quality protection from dust and sand is like when I faced Blighted Sworn in the Shadow Plane who came without much training on fighting in the dark. They think whatever is going to make it go in their favour without it, it was their undoing. Hopefully, similar weakness will be found in whoever is doing this so your grandfather can be quickly returned to rest..." Aibek said, a distracting thought pulled a small grin to a corner of the shadow archon as they glanced over to Ayreth.
"Shadows... I was around your age Ayreth I started shadow training, feels like a lifetime ago... or an old dream... I had no idea what I was getting myself into and was still sick from the contamination, but I'd made a pledge...and it felt good to finally feel good at something though Gulnaz, one of my trainers, she never let me feel at it for very long..." Aibek mused with a quiet chuckle, glancing over to Arman.
Ayreth thinks for a moment. "If there is something hampering Khalharum, I wonder how long it's been there. Do you think that's how they were able to assault and defeat the city in the first place?"
"You mentioned the symbol. I don't know how much it helps, but it's the symbol of Asmodeus, the most powerful of the nine archdevils that inhabit Hell. It seems like we've had a fair amount of trouble from there."
Considering their significantly more relaxed manner than usual, Ayreth asks some personal questions of 'her' Aibek. She tries not to barrage them because she doesn't want to ruin the moment. "So, your family name is Aibek, but that's what you prefer to be called? How did you end up in the Shadow Plane? You had to train for the things you do with shadows? It seems so natural, like when you practically disappear when you walk around." Ayreth cuts herself off.
"If whoever or whatever group is playing a very long game, which isn't impossible if archdevils are involved, then the downfall of Khalharum could be more than the historical politics that are commonly known." Aibek replied, and then took a few long moments as they obviously considered carefully how to answer Ayreth's questions.
Aibek took a long deep breath before talking, grey eyes on their cup but the focus was somewhere far away, "I ended up in the Shadow Planes by being rescued after my attempt at not very well thought out heroics. I was carried, broken and bleeding and unconscious, and woke up there in a small room with a lot of bandages being told that, while honourable and impressive, they didn't exactly need a lone teenage whelp to defend their territory and between my injuries, severe contamination sickness and the Archon Adilet wanting words, I wasn't going to be able to go anywhere for a while...eventually I made my home and life there. Aibek paused, glancing to Arman with mixed emotions clear on their face.
"I had some natural though rough ability with shadows then, enough that Archon Adilet took my pledge...it took a lot of training to get where I am now. Shadow-meld walking I've been doing for years... the incorporeal walking is new, something the influx on shadows from the Shadow Collector has changed. It's not as controlled as I'd like. Hopefully, as I sort and smooth the new shadows, it will get easier". Aibek looked down at their hands for a few quiet moments.
"As for my name, I would not say being called my family name is what I prefer. Like I said to the boat workers, it feels almost like a title in itself and I went a few happy years in the Shadow Plane without ever hearing it. But...after I had to return to the Material Plane..." Aibek looked away, a pained expression flickered over their features for a moment before they schooled themself back into a calm neutral mask though they struggled to keep their voice even.
"Arman worded it well earlier...an Aibek was requested, an Aibek answered. I am not my older sibling who the letter was addressed to, I work and do and am in Khalharum pledged as a representative of my family. I...I will do my best to help you, your kin, the others to do what was promised, to find out why whoever did this...and to make Khalharum great and survive as your grandfather requested, but I... I am here as an Aibek. The rest...I do not know if...this may not make sense, I was trying to explain this to Arman earlier but words are difficult...I do not know how the rest of me works or fits on the Material Plane anymore. My body was entirely changed as part of what I pledged...my senses, my way being. I have become...okay at being a good Aibek, the rest of me...was odd...an acquired taste before I chose this. concluded as they glanced down to their untouched drink. "It feels at times that that was left behind, the only thing I can claim now, all that matters in Khalharum, is I am an Aibek."
Ayreth is looking much more composed as the conversation lengthens. "And is the dreamwalking part of that, or a family trait, or can anyone learn it?"
Ayreth puts a sympathetic hand on their arm. "If you were happy in that plane, why did you need to leave?"
"Would you prefer Aiday?," Ayreth asks nervously, wondering if using that name will finally turn the mood.
"Dreaming can be learned, although some inherit a knack, in the same way that any can learn to do magic but some find magic whether they wish it or not." Arman shrugged. "Our mother's gifts are transformative and healing, for example. Mine is the art of the bard and the dream. And Aiday's...well, you've seen some of what Aiday can do."
Aibek grew quiet, allowing Arman to answer while the older witchwolf thought things over.
Speaking matter-of-factly, Aibek expanded on Arman's response, "It is not a family trait, you could likely learn it easier than I. There are a few other dreamers in the clan, we're taught techniques and sigils for it as children, but this is Arman's unique mastery. When I lived in the Shadow Planes, we would meet here regularly and, even after years of working on it, I can still barely create anything here, and only with a lot of focus. Arman has to work a bit harder to bring me here - before Arman could join me almost anywhere in the Dream - now I struggle to dream on my own anymore..." Aibek sighed.
"...I left because we were under attack on so many fronts, the thinning I'd come through could no longer be properly defended and...we feared attracting an Umbral. It is said the contamination in the Shadow Planes fills the Umbral dragons to the bones, giving them their malice and they love joining conflicts. The death toll if an Umbral joined would be...incalculable. I...was ordered to close the thinning. It would prevent more blighters and Sworn coming through, make the Nihiloi see us as less of a target - they hate anything to do with the Material Plane. It was the only solution presented to me, it is still the only one I can see."
"To close the thinning, I used items given to me by the Archon, tied them around the entrance on both sides, then to my shadow bindings and... I'm told the explosion was heard miles away on the Material Plane side. I woke up in a lot of pain, surprised that the cave in it had caused had not killed me. As I was tied across Planes when it happened, I've been told my...connections between Planes has likely been damaged. I can barely feel those I am bound to - like going from being in a city and being able at any moment to know where certain people are, the direction they were heading, their well-being and mood, all of it...to just an odd sensation that they are alive. It's like my senses and such have been mostly severed. That feeling is all I've had to go on since coming back, finding ways to get messages to another Plane is...difficult. But the thinning is blocked, I checked several times and could not find even a crack..."
Aibek looked off into the distance for a long moment, considering Ayreth's last question, their eyes hardening in a flicker of movement for a moment before softening, "I would prefer if I felt like them again. No matter how many times Arman says it, that name feels like an old life, an old dream, a shadow burned away by the sun. The only reason I am in Khalharum, the only life I have on the Material Plane is as an Aibek. Ai...Aiday, Shadow Champion bound by pledge and body to Archon Adilet, teammate and partner...boundmate of Inkar, Sezim, Ayaulym...I think they're still in that cave in that last party dress feeling the others' worry before I set off those devices..."
Aibek shook their head and lingering thoughts away before looking to Arman, "I'm still not sure how Ayreth ended up here, of all places in the Dream...particularly from a card. " Aibek said, as their thoughts continued to move through them.
"I'm sorry that you lost your family. If I can help you find them again, I will," Ayreth solemnly vows.
Aibek's last comment sends Ayreth into a thoughtful stare. After several long moments, she starts speaking aloud in a stream of consciousness, almost babbling. "The last time that I had a vision was when the Shadow Collector died. You said that its death did something to you, affecting your connection with the Shadows, right? Well, since I was having a vision at that moment, could it have done something to my visions? Not that I'm sure why it would send me into the Dream. Although, the creature definitely had a connection since it was trying to pull us into the Dream to feed on us, or our fears or something. But I didn't have a previous connection to the Dream like you did with Shadows." Her shoulders sag in a dejected manner.
But Ayreth perks right back up a fraction of a second later. "Unless I did and just didn't know it. You mentioned a 'thinning' between the Shadow Plane and the Material Plane. Could that happen with the Dream? Like a place that is both real and Dream? Because before Grampa Zhen rescued me..." Tears well up in Ayreth's eyes from the memory as she continues. "...I was trapped by my mother in this place that was just filled with mist. I don't even know how long I was there. It was all just running and hiding and Thark teaching me things when we had spare moments. Is that crazy? Am I crazy?" She looks back-and-forth between the siblings expectantly.
Aibek glanced to Arman and then back to Ayreth as the small oracle spoke. After a small moment's hesitation, Aibek gently placed a hand on Ayreth's shoulder, "Not crazy, it's quite possible though I don't think any of us can know for certain. The Dream is in the Ethereal Plane; the Ethereal Plane, the Material Plane, and the Shadow Plane are all interconnected with each other. A thinning is just an easy way to refer to places where the usual boundaries are weak and more fluid than most. Some things can make an area more fluid and other things can make them more solid. Many have taken advantage of them over the years and many find being near, and particularly crossing them without knowledge of them disorientating which could make them useful for a trap and along with the nature of the Dream, make them hard to get out of. If any thinnings are found in Khalharum, which is also quite possible, ensuring protection for those on both sides of them would be essential before using them for trade...or messages..." Aibek concluded, glancing at Arman for a moment.
"The Shadow Collector's death did something... their victims being drawn to me has caused a few things I am still uncertain about. I haven't finished smoothing and soothing them, it's a tiring uncomfortable process that takes time. Being drawn into that dream, being present at the unleashing of that type of unusual power, it is certainly possible that it brought out, changed, or created a connection in you. If it happened there when Arman was also there, it could explain why you were drawn here of all places in the dream...
Knowledge: Planes: 1d20 + 8 ⇒ (9) + 8 = 17
Ayreth's laughs musically, honestly amused and bumps her shoulder against Aibek's side in an affectionate gesture. "Oh, Aibek. Whatever the process, I'm here because you're here, not him. Arman was only sort of there, and besides, we have a link through the city and the Marks. Don't undervalue that," she ends with a smile.
"Honestly? I think this is one of those situations with a number of causes," Arman replied, pouring more tea. "I think Ayreth here has some innate connection to the dream, but the connection to the city, the connection to Aiday, the Collector's drawing you into the Dream realm and the vision from the card have served as a catalyst. Or maybe only someone of those. Or maybe some other things I don't know about it."
Sipping the tea, he added, "But certainly the strength of your connection - and not just the Marks and the city - had some impact on these events. At least, I think. This is all very confusing."
Aibek could not cover their surprise and confusion as they tried to take in what Ayreth was saying. They paused for a moment, mixed thoughts running through their mind before looking over to Arman, still obviously perplexed as they listened to what their sibling said, "If you are confused by the dream, then I have no hope. Best I can just about start to understand the interconnection of Planes, make simple objects like tables and watch old memories..." Aibek said, shaking their head, still trying to piece things out in their head...
"Wow, what other things can you do? I remember when you two and Azri saved us from that creature, I was able to find the others by making caves to them. When I went through each of the caves, there they were. But, ummm..." Ayreth looks unsure about sharing the next bit of information. "Well, there were other caves there; one for Zhen, one for Grimrod, and one for Thark. I never went through those, and never found out what was in them."
"Memories, maybe?" Arman mused aloud. "Or a path to their dreams? Do the departed dream?" The Dreamer smiled. "The Dream is not concrete, and the rules not always the same. It can be a little challenging to navigate. As for myself...I can enter the dreams of others, see the world in the reflection of people's sleeping minds and a few other things." Scratching his head, he added, "Although most of my confusion here comes down to there being too many choices. I don't know which one is most likely."
"Not very much, especially now. I can make simple objects, make a few changes to things Arman makes with focus..." Aibek explained, pausing for a long moment to look at their cup, after which the drink's colour changed and a smell like spiced orange and cinnamon wafted gently before the older witchwolf took a sip, face flickering mixed feeling and a soft smile.
"Though rarely as well as I'd like. I've never made passages as you've described. Mainly, I was trained how to protect myself and others within the dream in case we were ever attacked that way. The dream's challenging, changing nature makes it a potent battleground which, when I had little inborn skill for a more typical one, became of interest. I had little talent for this either. Even when I found bringing memories or images up easily done, keeping it to one memory rather than an overlapping cacophony was something that I still find challenging. Arman's mirrors make it easier, they hold one pointed thought at a time. When I lived in the Shadow Planes, I would show Arman the Archon's grand parties and the nice things to reassure them...trying to avoid anything that would scar my little sibling too much" Aibek said with a chuckle, reaching over to again ruffle Arman's dark hair...
Ayreth smiles wistfully at the sibling affection. "It must be nice to have a sibling. But, back to the point, I've learned to trust my visions. If having it sent me here, there must be a reason for it. Maybe it was to let you know about Khalharum. You're still there, right? Is there...is there a way to teach me hot to contact you again in the Dream? It seems like a quick way to keep you informed."
"You could have tried harder,"[b] the Dreamer muttered. [b]"There are things one does not need to see a sibling do, and nothing in this world for removing memories."
Looking over at Arman considered for a moment. [b]"Yes, I think so." Reaching out with one hand, he rested his hand on her head for a moment, chanting in a low, mellow tone. After a moment he sat down. "A small...transfer. Knowledge, mostly, on how to use the powers you've been given."
Ding! Have a template.
Ayreth gasps. "Oh my, Aibek, what did you show your little sibling?," she teases, reveling in the relaxed atmosphere.
Ayreth holds her breath as Arman chants and her eyes glaze over. As the younger Aibek removes their hand, her head and body follow as if trying to absorb as much knowledge as possible before the link is broken. Once it is, Ayreth settles back into her seat, though the mist in her eyes continues to swirl. "Nine hells, I had no idea that was possible. You really have spent a lot of time here and mastered so much."
"What's the protocol if I want to contact you here? How do I... knock?"
Awesome, thanks! I hope this hasn't derailed your plans for the scene. I'm having a lot of fun getting to know our Witchwolf better!
Aibek fell back a bit with a laugh, "I, as always, apologize profusely... Aibek glanced to Ayreth with a grin they found difficult to hide, leaning back on the hands, memories flowing behind their eyes, After being bound, my mind was...further unsteady with the additional information for awhile. Boundmates can feel what each other feels - binding our shadows binds part of our beings - when one learns it, it means we can find and work together and protect each other regardless of battle or chaos or the contamination...but at first it was overloading, feeling everything from three other people all at once...what little control of my dreams was gone for a while, poor little Arman saw battlefields and...barracks...and yeah... Aibek chuckled, a mix of embarrassment and amusement clear as they recounted it. For a long quiet moment mixed emotions, including clear wistfulness, flickered over the older witchwolf's face as they watched Arman pass their knowledge to Ayreth, eyes focused much farther being brought back at Ayreth's question.
Aibek looked over to Arman for a brief moment, "Arman will have to show you how to get here, they have to bring me here - you may be able to bring me or others to places in the Dream. The...knocking protocol for us is our sigils. This carpet is actually full of sigils. Mine is there..." Aibek comments with a smile, pointing to a spot near the large mirror that after a few moments flickered back to the charcoal black before returning to blend into the colourful pattern. It looks very similar to the one on the two siblings' neck guards though unlike the ones on their neck guards which look identical, the one in the carpet has additional marks on one side.
"When entering, finding and drawing our sigils both ensures everyone we are who we appear as well as link us to the protection sigils woven into this space. Creating a new knocking protocol... or new sigil... what do you think?" Aibek asked, looking at the others...
Yay new template! Congrats Ayreth :D This is good fun and as I had few plans going in other than really wanting a dreamer sequence, this has been mostly winging it so no derailment. Other than figuring out protocols if any, and maybe if Ayreth wants Aibek will explain their different appearance as they said they would earlier maybe with sharing a memory in the mirror, I have no plans other than having fun with this and everyone getting to know each other better.
"Oh really? Is it... would it be... can I have one?," she finally squeaks out, holding her breath.
Glancing at Aibek, Arman muttered, "Battlfields and barracks and bedrooms."
"You can create something, yes," Arman added after a moment's thought. "They are unique to you as an individual, so it's not something I could make. You seem lovely, but I'm afraid I don't know you that well. As for how to get here, or somewhere like it, you should be able to visualize it in a dream and come. The trick is lucid dreaming, so you can control the dream."
Aibek sighed and muttered back with an amused pointed look, "Again, my sincerest apologies, though that was a medical room...I believe after I'd broken my foot..." before looking away sheepishly though still grinning.
Aibek paused after hearing Ayreth excitement, nervously looking over to their younger sibling. Hearing Arman's explanation, the older witchwolf nodded before pondering aloud, "A sigil can be created, though not a Vakana one like ours. An individual's sigil is very personal, someone who knows you will be able to see your... story in the design and how you draw it. Ours tell our family line, our place within the family, our ties, even under which moon we were born for those who know Vakana lore. Maybe after some more time I could help you create your own, I've done so for a few others before... but anything I could do now would be too easily broken for me to want to you to rely on. Arman can tie you in here without one as they already have...otherwise you couldn't touch anything...and you may find your own way to knock as you use what Arman has shared that would be stronger still than anything I could ever help make. Our protective traditions influence ours greatly but...well...that doesn't mean they're the best for you and everyone comes to the dream their own way. A new knocking protocol would be needed for a time anyways - if you drew someone who looked like me into a dream and they drew my symbol, I do not think you know it or me well enough to know if it's been done right or not to tell if it was me. You need something you can rely on and connect to now, not something we spent years practicing..." Aibek blew out some tension as they looked at the images on the wall.
After a moment, they continued their pondering, "It will likely evolve over time but to start with, especially if you want to try to contact me, you could begin visualizing the first thing you recognized this time...the goggles or something? Aibek said, tapping the side of their symbol's frame as it sat on their head nestled in the witchwolf's dark hair. "I won't be able to connect until you pull me in which will be a pretty big clue that it is you - then just a way to confirm it...like your starry mark or symbol, they're pretty unique, easily recognized but hard to duplicate. First requirements of a personal sigil" Aibek said with a soft smile and shrug.
"It's been a while since I've had dreamers other than Arman, though Eteri show up at times with Arman but usually only for a few minutes - Eteri is frenetic and has a lot of trouble sleeping, so...it is mainly up to how you want to do things Ayerth... it has some risks with the Dream being as it is, I can add a few protective sigils if you pull me in, if you just want to pass a quick message, that may be best since Arman isn't always around...when Arman isn't, this place isn't" Aibek said, glancing at their sibling.
"If you pull me in Ayreth, I'll appear as you think of me, which will hopefully make me easier for you to recognize..."
"Wow, okay then. That's a lot to think about. But it's going to be fun learning all this stuff. The Mark does seem like a good place to start for me. And I only needed the goggles 'cause you look so different. I would recognize you now. Especially now that I understand about the sigils and what yours is. Hey...," she says, suddenly remembering. "...why do you look different? You said you'd tell me," she entreats, like a small child.
Aibek chuckled, embarrassment flickering over their features, "Yeah...sorry about dumping all that on you. Once I get started, it's hard to get my mind to stop, only slightly easier to get my mouth to do so. Part of what makes me a poor dreamer, but with your connection to the Dream and Arman's knowledge to give you some shortcuts... it'll all get figured out". Aibek said with a shrug.
Aibek looked over to the mirror at the rest of Ayreth's comments, words coming slower, cautiously considered, a soft sigh escaping as they began, "I did say I would explain the difference, and more, if you wanted...you did seem quite startled by it. This...this is from Arman pulling me here, so - like I said, if you were to do it, how you know me would be how I would most likely appear. Arman...has known me their whole life, knows more about me than...almost anyone, even myself at times. Arman has also done this a lot so is skilled at pulling me in...in their preferred way of knowing me -- and how they think I would like to be because my sibling is nice like that. I added this robe after arrival, seemed fitting... Aibek said with a gesture to Arman's robes and a small smile.
"But, other than that..." the witchwolf said with a nervous chuckle, "this is how I look when I'm not having to protect myself from harsh sun, sand...lots of unknown humans..." anxious eyes flickered over to Arman for a moment. "Though, I do usually keep this hair up, braided, whether or not I wear that head covering you usually see me wear Ayreth, it's far harder to control outside of the Dream. Archon Adilet did prefer it down for their court balls, so - when dressed to dance and relax as Arman prefers - the down hair goes with this type of armour... Aibek continues, awkwardly and warily moving part of the robe aside to show the upper part of a dark grey leather armour that is heavily embroidered in intricate patterns.
"I have this in Khalharum actually, in my bags, it's badly damaged - I haven't been... brave enough to get it repaired yet. Need to find some materials first anyways..." Aibek says with a shrug, "I was given a...less impressive set for one of the first court balls I attended as Archon Adilet's...pledged - I wasn't a Shadow Champion yet - when I was about your age. I can show you in the mirror if...if you're interested in... why...this is how Arman pulls me in..." Aibek offers, unsure...
"Oh, please, if you don't mind. And if you want, I might be able to help with your armor soon. With all the repairs that Khalharum needs, I've been trying to figure out how to use my gifts to do that. I think I'm close. Like I said, if you want."
Aibek's unsure smile warms as they listen to Ayreth, though still looks surprised at Ayreth's interest, "I don't mind, if you want, though I look even more different..." Aibek said, surprise turning into a nervous self-depreciating chuckle. They paused for a moment as they brought the memory to front of their mind, and after a deep breath, they look over to the mirror. Aibek leans over to gentle touch it...
The image flickers for a few moments. Warm slow ballroom dance music comes through clearly followed by the picture clearing to a palatial hall. Tall jet black walls, wide floor of dappled greyscale marble surrounded by raised platforms on all sides and rich grey fabric curtains at one end. The floor is filled with groups of dancer. It is easily noticed that it is almost all kayal women in fine dresses, the higher status having fancier dresses and brightly coloured hair in all shades of the rainbow.
"Archon Adilet has an idea that the contamination can be fought just as much with joy as it is on the field. Though that might just be an excuse for all their parties. The Archon is about to come out..." Aibek comments as they watch the memory with sparkling grey eyes and a wide smile.
Behind the point of view is another large rich grey fabric curtain that moves into view as two figures come out onto the raised platform. One is a very tall Shae, solid shadows waving off of her behind a black sparkling dress and a solid white mask with arranged with colourful gems along the edges. A few steps behind the Shae is a kayal woman with bright red short hair with a stern face...who walks with now familiar incorporeal steps. ]A giggle is heard behind the point of view, which turns quickly to a shorter kayal woman with yellow glowing eyes, dark grey complexion hiding a bit behind light grey hair. The woman pulls the point of view behind the curtain. "We go out together, you're lucky the rose didn't see you..."
"Gulnaz was the one who was walking with Archon Adilet. She has a nickname, 'Adilet's rose', more for the thorny imagery than the hair. I felt those thorns...quite a few times - she was one of my trainers and was not fond of my being there for a long time. That is Sezim, the first person I saw when I woke up in the Shadow Planes. Even as an oracle who trained to heal battlefield injuries, she spent... weeks helping me get back on my feet."
Behind the curtain, doors can be seen on either side of the end f the hall, and beside each door a large mirror and table. The point of view is pulled towards the mirror by Sezim, two more people come through the door. The first a young kayal woman with almost black complexion, light grey make up dotted around her forehead, with curly dark hair pulled back looking very out of breath and worried. "I'm so sorry, it's my fault we're late, I know you wanted to make a good impression..."
"It's fine, Ayaulym, I don't think I will upset them with my absence..." says a reassuring voice which rings clearly as Aibek's. But younger, easier, lighter...sweeter.
Behind Ayaulym, the other woman is chuckling as she walked up to the mirror. The tips of her spiked short grey hair are dyed bright red and is wearing a familiar looking crossbow on her back. She talks as she checks her reflection, confidence obvious, "No one will notice, the gossip about the trial is already almost gone. Just relax. That includes you Aidee. It's a party!" The woman laughs while yanking the point of view towards the mirror.
After stumbling for a few moments having been caught off guard, the view pulls up. Looking in the mirror, Aiday Aibek is a teenager with very nervous smile. Their hair is braided at the top with the remainder loose, though only barely past their shoulders. Gloves go up the arm, but they are obviously heavily bandaged underneath. The woman next to her has similar gloves...and bandages and still wearing a confident grin. Young Aiday Aibek's eyes in the mirror look from person to person, their gaze obviously uncomfortable looking at what they are all share.
All four are wearing embroidered light grey leather armor dresses.
Present Aibek covers part of their face in embarrassment, still wearing a broad smile "I - we -look so...little. I was so worried I was going to insult someone wearing that. I mean, the Archon assigned us to wear them, but..." Aibek shrugged as they continued to watch.
Nervous Aiday Aibek looked just about to say something when the woman next to the young shadow creature covered Aiday Aibek's mouth. Nervous eyes slowly become glares as they hear, "I said relaxing includes you. We've got your back, now if we're going to be Shadow Champions, we've got to be able to take on a room of snooty dancing nobles. Remember the Archon's orders. Now, ready?"
Aiday Aibek nods, a spark of the playfulness coming back into the shadow creature's glaring eyes, they pretend to bite after the hand after it is removed. "Inkar, I'm pretty sure Gulnaz said to stay away from wolf blood mouths..." Ayaulym giggles. Inkar's confident grin just becomes more smug as they shrug. "Didn't follow that before Aiday was made shadow and told us about witchwolves, not going to do so now..." replied Inkar with a mischevious chuckle before leading the others to the hall. Aiday Aibek followed behind the other three, looking every which way, the sound of the music getting louder.
The scene shows the four quickly surrounded by other people and engulfed in the celebrations. A few minutes of the dancing, laughing, plays before Inkar appears again standing next to the point of view, pulling Aiday Aibek over slightly. "Told you, you fit right in Aidee." is heard barely over the din of the music. Aiday Aibek looks down, sees their fingers and shadows intertwined for a long moment. A very excited Ayaulym comes up to the pair, pulling Sezim behind her and grabbing Aiday Aibek's other hand, "They're about to introduce the new Shadow Champion group. That'll be us one day...we'll be ladies of Archon Adilet..." The four stand very closely together before the image flickers and fades away
Aibek looks away, their cheeks distinctly pink even under their brown complexion and their pleased wistful smile and previously relaxed posture slowly turned nervous and anxious.
Ayreth watches silently as the memory plays in the mirror. After it is over, she wordlessly hugs Aibek again. Several moments pass before she lets go and says, "Thank you for sharing that. So, did you ever become Shadow Champions?"
Aibek accepted the hug with no resistance though little of their tension left from the affection. They waited anxiously a few moments, watching carefully, as if they were waiting for...something - though not certain what.
The shadow archon looked away and nodded before answering, "I would be bound with them some years after that. After we recovered from that, we were presented at a similar ball. I worked as one of Archon Adilet's... Shadow Champions until I closed the thinning. Technically, I am still one, I guess..." Aibek shrugged, glancing up to the mirror, then back down to their drink in contemplation, as if some thoughts, some concerns, some unsure things, were sitting just beyond the older witchwolf's mind, not yet in words they could reach or express.
Ayreth waits quietly, thinking Aibek needs a few moments.
Aibek looks over to Arman, studying the younger sibling for a few moments before speaking softly, "Quite a few people thought I was you when I was traveling to Katapesh. Even Zhen Halfblood called me your name - I said nothing, no point wasting a dying man's time on something so trivial. And it was...almost... comforting. Safer, much safer hearing that though, like you said, he may have just been humouring me and knew all along. I pledged I would not put myself at such risks, but...when you appeared to the others, in the dream, they commented...but not..." Aibek sighed and shrugged as they looked away, a chilling storm growing behind their eyes.
"Ever since then...something has been... slipping isn't quite the right word. I enjoy sinking into the background, I know my place as the least connected compared to the others in all this, I do not mind or expect anyone to notice or give much thought to me or my changing eyes or walk or my going several days in wolven form - with all my clothes and bindings, a bit of extra hair, pointy bits and change of footwear isn't much... I was surprised when Azerna commented on it at all at dinner, but...some of the people in town, and the boat workers, I've seen their looks, I've heard them unsure in how to address me - and it's not because of my large teeth. I thought I was being meticulous and so careful but maybe I've been in a lot more danger this whole time than I thought. Or maybe I've gotten too comfortable and unknowingly...I relax for a few minutes, recklessly show all that, and now my mind won't stop questioning everything. Typical..." Aibek sighed, their pained face resting in their hand...
"We have different definitions of reckless, dear sibling, but we always have. But everyone needs an identity," Arman replied with a smile, "And as comforting as it is to hide behind my name, behind mother's name, behind our family name, Aiday needs to breathe too. And your place might not be so into the background this time. You are one of the masters of Khalharum, regardless of whose, and that's more likely what those looks are about. Yes, our wolf blood makes us a little unique, but frankly..."
For a moment, Arman focused, and a number of lights appeared around him. His fingers flew out, lightly touching them "Let's see...Orc, Half-Orc, Human, Elf...divine blood, devil blood, demonic blood...oh, that lady is a Changeling. She can hear someone calling her in her dreams, and ran here to escape. That one," he tapped another light, "That one is a catfolk, I think, and another is one of the half-dead." He glanced over at Aibek. "If I am entirely honest, I think it will take a great deal more than being shadow infused or wolfkin to disturb your neighbors. I know you do not want certain things revealed in regards to what is under those bindings," he said, glancing at Ayreth for a moment, "But frankly unless you walk into the street without wearing anything, I don't think many people will care. Beyond the usual idiots who think it's their business, anyway. And you are the boss of them, so..."
His fingers paused over one. "Goodness, that might get someone noticed. I can feel the heat from that one. Your Dryad friend seems to be having quite a dream. What could she be dreaming of...?"
Aibek raised an eyebrow, opening one eye but not raising their head from their palm "I know you can't see from that, nor will you look unless you think she's in severe danger so don't... shadows, your bad pun from earlier is getting to me, all I've got is fire jokes running through my head." Aibek sighed, a smile barely starting to pull at the corners of the witchwolf's mouth.
"My definition, which between Nurasyl and Gulnaz has been well drilled into me, is doing something without thinking of the consequences. I got carried away, again, and then freak out. Again." Aibek closed their eye again, rubbing their forehead into their hand.
"I'm not... it's nothing to do with being wolf's blood or shadow bound. I walk around with the teeth and claws. Shadows dancing around my hands and feet. I doubt people are doing "Mis...si...uh" because of that. I'm not trying to go own the street naked - Eteri showing up and doing that would be far more likely - I'm trying... trying to keep my promise to not risk myself. With so any Sworn-looking men around, I can't...I don't want to be anyone's boss or master, but none of what I have stopped or will stop...
Ayreth sits quietly, catching bits and pieces, but definitely missing some, too. Then something catches her attention. "Wait, who is a Changeling trying to escape here?"
"I don't know," Arman said, glancing at Ayreth, "I can only get some of the details without diving into the dream, and I won't invade someone's privacy like that without an invitation. That is part of what the glyphs mean."
Nodding to Aibek, he added, "You may not wish to be, but it is what you are. Make yourself a scion of change for the better, and maybe it will still some of the past."
"Oh. But who are they, the lights? I mean, why did those specific people show up as lights here?"
"Proximity. Arman -- and this place at this time -- are near where the Dream and the Ethereal...overlap with Khalharum - makes it easier for Arman to pull me in. Arman pulled in part of nearby dreams, hence why Azerna's dream showed up since she's in the inn like I am - and another reason why you showing up when you aren't in the city was quite surprising, the range doesn't go that far usually. Those lights don't give much - just very basic information on who is dreaming and the emotions given off by it which can attract attention. The lights have many uses, spotting people who shouldn't be there, headcounts when a group is separated, and so on. They could also act as a gateway, but as said, Arman won't unless their life is in danger. Pulling people in here is safer for Arman and everyone anyways...in several ways." Aibek explained, looking to their sibling with raised eyebrows opening their mouth slightly as if to respond, then closing it again with a sigh.
After a long quiet moment, Aibek looked away. "Maybe you're right. Not very fond of that and I don't know what being a 'scion' or boss for anything would change if the Sworn or those like them are in Khalharum... people turn on those that are seen as monsters awfully quickly in my experience. I'd rather find a way to work mutually beneficially cooperatively together. I'll think on it, maybe talk it over with Azerna and Elie, they know the area far better, especially when it comes to that"
Aibek looked over to Ayreth, still awkward and nervous, "Is there anything I can do for you in Khalharum while you're away? I've arranged meetings to talk to the refugees and some of the townspeople and make some maps and notes of the city, I can do a few things along the way if you like..."
"If there's another Changeling in Khalharum, I feel like I should do something about that. Even though I can't at the moment."
"Not that it's my business, but you seem to have a habit of undervaluing yourself. I've seen you exhibit patience, compassion, cunning, and ferocity when situations demanded it. You have a sense of fairness and justice, and you don't judge people by what they can do for you. Aren't those all qualities you would want in a leader?"
"I'm not certain... maybe you could keep an eye out for a young woman with differently colored eyes, similar to mine?" Ayreth pulls the hair out of her face, more clearly revealing her own eyes. "They probably won't be the same colors, but..." Ayreth shrugs, not sure what to say. "I guess, if you find her, I don't know, see that she's safe?"
Ayreth turns to Arman. "Could I find her again? Do dreamers have signatures? Like, could I offer her a reassuring presence without going in?"
Aibek listened, pondering what Ayreth said, "The idea of being boss or leader or above other people...even if I would be good at it, I prefer working as a group with people, as part of a whole. The Nexus calling you and I "councilors" was kinda reassuring, a council rather than ruling absolutely. Rulers, bosses...archons... Aibek glanced away nervously,
"Those that think they are above...that are in a higher maintained place socially to most people...they tend to do things with their power. Mutually beneficial groups leave far fewer things open to abuse than a fixed command structure...not that anything is perfect, as Arman knows we've had humans that had worked with the clan for years betray us because of what we are...or who and how much someone else was paying...but more people equal and working together suits me...like shadows coming together soothing at dusk rather than one big bright burning light."
Aibek glanced to the little lights, "I am intending to go the main village in the next day or so, there are some shops I haven't seen, some letters I need to send, and some supplies I need to expand my map and I've arranged a few meals with some of the refugees and townsfolk over the next week. I can certainly keep an eye out and let you know, or if you wish I or you can ask Azerna if she knows any Changelings in Khalharum. If they're close to the inn, they're likely in the village rather than out with the treasure hunters or other unknowns so she's likely to know them. If I find them, I can try to arrange a meal or something when you and Selena return."
"You could probably give them some kind of comfort, but without entering they won't get anything more than the presence."
Arman looked to one side. "It is starting to become light, and I am told I really should wake for a while. And perhaps you should wake up from your trance, Ayreth If you wish, I will teach you more the next time I find you."
"That would be great, Aibek, thank you. And, thank you, Arman for what you have already taught me. I would very much like to learn more."
"Uh, how do I go back? Click my heels three times or something?"
"Huh, well..." Arman rubbed his head. "Normally I'd say 'wake up', but you aren't exactly asleep. Here...let me give you a push." Arman gently laid his hands on Ayreth's shoulders, focusing for a moment, and her form vanished like mist.
Back to the other thread you go!
As Ayreth vanished from sight, Arman turned to Aibek. "How are you feeling, after all that?"
Aibek smiled at Ayreth as they tried to reassure her. " I find taking a few slow breaths helps with this. Take care Ayreth, I look forward to hearing from hearing from you and Selena...." Aibek watches until she completely disappears from the Dream.
After Ayreth vanishes, Aibek sighs and is quiet for a few long moments. "I...don't know. A lot is the only description I can think of...feelings are hard...like words and reading faces..." Aibek chuckled a bit, glancing to the mirror. "It was nice...seeing it again so vividly...though it brought up a lot, some I didn't expect...I'm very unsure what Ayreth thought. Of...that...or their vision or all of this..." Aibek said as they motioned to their surroundings.
"I guess it'll be time for us to wake up soon...both of us...I miss this, even with all it brings up and you sounding like Dad" Aibek smile turned a bit sad as they looked at their sibling with a sigh. "So many things to do over the next few weeks, do you have any plans at...home?" Aibek said, the end feeling uneasy.
"Reasuring everyone I'm alright for the most part," Arman said with a small shrug and smile. "And to see if I can find out about Mother." His smile growing, he added, "And Ayreth seemed to like seeing you. Maybe you should do it more." Considering, he added, "And I only sounded a little like Dad. But I'll try and swing by once or twice a week."
"Hopefully whatever Xandruis sees sending Mother into dragon rage can be dealt with before it gets that far...though..." Aibek glances over to the mirror, "There does seem to be so much more going on with Zhen Halfblood than I thought when that letter arrived, and even more with Khalharum..."
Aibek smiled softly, nervously, "It's still hard to relax there...so many unknown people and...it's very different...and...I'm..." Aibek took a deep breath, looking over at Arman, "I would like that. Ayreth might like joining us sometimes...I don't know about the others...Azerna might enjoy it...I can ask - if you want to turn your house in the Dream into a party house like tonight occasionally...who knows, Eteri might drop in." Aibek chuckled, warmth returning to their smile.
"I suspect stopping Eteri from attending any kind of party would be more of the challenge," Arman said with a laugh, "But if you wish I can certainly set things up. Maybe create a small banquet hall..." For a moment Arman flickered like a mist. "And on that note, I think it is time for me to go."
The Bard hugged Aibek. "Sleep well, Aiday. I'll see you soon." He snapped his fingers and the dream began to fade.
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Aibek hugged their sibling tightly. "Take care Arman. And thank you..." The dream faded briefly into the black of Aibek's usual dreams - vague shapes, lines, sounds that were hard to focus on - before the witchwolf quickly woke up.
Aibek slowly opened their eyes, and pulled themself up to sitting on the bed. Leaning against the wall, feeling it cool against their bare back, the shadow archon stared blankly at the window for what felt like a long time. How long Aibek couldn't tell. Eventually, tears began falling. At first, they came slowly and quietly, easily ignored or wiped away. But the cracks in their mask slowly widened and a harsh flood of tears in shaking sobs erupted out of the witchwolf.
After a while that Aibek hadn't noticed in their crying, there was a knock at the locked door. Foggy headed, Aibek stood up, yanking one of the already loosened sheets with them and wrapping it around themselves that the robe they had worn in the fading dream. Wiping their face a moment, their hands fumbling for a minute at the lock before pulling open.
"Azerna? Is everything okay?"
The dryad in the hall raised her eyebrows as she surveyed Aibek for a long moment, "I was going to ask you that. I heard..."
"I'm sorry, I hope I didn't disturb your sleep. I've..." Aibek sighed, looking away, glowy grey eyes still foggy as they shifted where they stood inside the doorframe.
"You didn't, I've already been up for a bit and just happen to hear as I was walking past. Do... you want to talk about it?"
A thousand excuses came to Aibek's mind. They didn't want to bother...it isn't important...just a bit homesick...a rough dream...need more rest...another time maybe...one well-worn phrase after the other came, but none louder than Arman's words that rang in their ears, the memory of the last few evening's dinners steadying Aibek's nerves.
The silent moment between them extended, awkwardly to Aibek, before they looked back to Azerna, "Please, I...would appreciate your insight...if you want to... if it isn't too much..." Aibek shifted nervously, glancing away shyly.
Azerna smiled warmly, causing Aibek's breath to catch in their throat for a moment. "I'll go get us some water and things while you get dressed."
Aibek nodded as they watched her walk away, before turning around and closing the door. They opened their bag, the sheet falling down around them. Looking at their usual clothes and bindings, Aibek sighed, their eyes catching the old battered armor for a wistful moment before it landed on a familiar robe. Pulling some of the warm weather gear, their vest, and then the robe, Aibek was brushing their hair when they heard a knock again.
Aibek tossed the sheet back onto the bed that more resembled a nest of fabrics before opening the door. The last of the tiredness starting to leave the witchwolf as they saw Azerna carrying a tray. "I was just about to head down, you didn't need to..."
"It's fine, I've seen how you value your privacy...and thought you might want to talk here. You certainly look comfortable..."
A small smile pulled at Aibek's mouth as they helped Azerna put the tray on the small old table. Aibek had purposefully chosen the smallest room with the little window when they had first arrived - bed, table, chair, lantern, and rug seemed more than enough for someone used to sleeping in barracks, tents, and the occasional tree. Aibek kept most of their things constantly packed in their bag out of habit, the bag resting on the floor near the door, so the room looked tidy if a bit bare...other than the bed which was chaotically covered in a ball of light blankets and sheets. Still, Aibek felt embarrassed in from Azerna - it was her room to Aibek.
"Sorry for the mess, I haven't been sleeping well." Aibek said nervously as they sat on the bed, pulling themselves back so their back was resting against the wall again, their legs pulled up.
Azerna chuckled and shook her head at the witchwolf before picking up her drink and sat on the edge of bed. "Why do you think that is?" the dryad gently enquired.
Aibek gave a small shrug, "I haven't slept well in months. When I left the Shadow Planes...I was severely hurt, still surprised I survived. Haven't slept or dreamed the way I did before since then. Aibek explained, glancing over at Azerna's encouraging smile.
"Last night was different. Arman, one of my siblings - the dreamer, they brought me into the Dream last night for the first time in a while. We talked a lot. Then Ayreth showed up - she's fine, just something weird happened in Katapesh so she ended up there for a while. Arman's dream is...very relaxing. I...shared more of my memories than I intended, and between that and the talking...it brought up a lot, things I'm still unsure about, worried about, scared about. I... I've seen a lot of things, you probably have too, there are some things I just can't shake...ummm...Can I ask you a personal question, you don't..don't have to answer..." Aibek began, nervously stumbling over their question.
Azerna nodded with a curious smile.
"Before you got your tree back, you were...hiding some of your features. Elie mentioned that she had no idea. I won't ask why, but...how have you felt since then? how have people treated you? Mine is obviously not as well done - the wolf blood gives me a lower voice and I've been careful with the clothes, but I've had comments. It's just felt easier and safer to...I've just so many times seen so-called good people do horrible things to those... I tried talking to Arman but...they're a guy who lives in dreams, I don't think they understand. Like, they know how some people we thought were safe turned on us because we're just...monsterous to them...but what they do specifically to..." Aibek's voice had started to shake, slowly curled up their body as tears began to well up and burn in the corners of their eyes.
Azerna carefully moved closer, resting a hand on the witchwolf's shoulder, causing Aibek to look up at her. "Duval insisted I look as human as possible, to attract customers and make them feel comfortable. I used a glamour to look more human. It was such a relief...I haven't really thought about what others' think. No one's bothered me so I guess they don't care...though they might be scared of you lot..." Azerna gently teased.
"Or they're even more intimidated by your beauty now..." Aibek replied, wiping their eyes as they heard the dryad chuckle. Aibek's studied the dryad for quiet moments as their loud mind roared around them. The memory shared in the dream rose to mind, a soothing feeling began going down Aibek's right arm. Lifting it up to look at, 3 shadow lines - each a different shade - coming from higher up their arm crossed the shadow archon's palm. A small smile came to Aibek, they gently pulled each one, one at a time, wrapping the dark red line around their middle finger, the dark blue line around their fourth finger, and the dark grey purple around their smallest finger on their right hand.
Aibek stared at them as they spoke, "I pledged to my family and clan that I would not risk myself to fulfill the pledge I made to Archon Adilet. I did it to save the life of another who had saved me...who I love. My pledge meant I allowed my body to be changed, my loyalty proven by becoming...by giving up... Aibek sighed as they rubbed their hand.
Later, as part of my pledge, I bound...part of myself to the woman who saved me, Inkar..." Aibek pointed to the red line, "...and Sezim..." pointing to the blue line, "..and Ayaulym." pointing to the purple one before closing their hand, looking at the lines going up their wrist and under their robe. "I've never thought love was some finite...thing. I've...a long history of jumping in both feet & full heart into...particularly with people. I love my boundmates, I miss them...so much. When I first returned to the Material, after I could walk properly again, all I could think of was returning - I checked where the thinning was so many times...it's why my family asked me to pledge - they worried I would do something...reckless. After a while, I tried to focus on the Vakana. When I got here, I was still trying to keep them in my mind as my home, as me. It caused...a few outbursts. After facing that shadow collector abomination...everything kinda broke and I couldn't... My body changed again, shadows dancing around my feet and hands beyond my control, my sense of my boundmates became... unreliable. I...I..." tears were starting to come back again, "I've been so worried, that the...that our bond was breaking. I left to save them, Archon Adilet ordered...it was only way...but what if it wasn't, what if she...or they...just wanted rid of me? I was so...what if it's breaking, what if this is the last of it? what if they're doing this because I...? What if I've caused this by leaving, by not getting rid of the shadow collector's victims - I couldn't, they're so..., but... what if it's breaking because I've...because I...I li..." Aibek looked over to Azerna, the torn feelings breaking the witchwolf's usual mask.
Azerna pulled Aibek close and the witchwolf broke into a sob. The cracks open and raw, it was several minutes before Aibek could stop, and many more before they moved from the comfortable position to look Azerna in the eye, "It's been months and I haven't found a way to send them a message. By my pledge, I should return - I swore my life so Inkar wouldn't be...she was meant to be executed for saving me. I couldn't let... I loved my life there, because of them. I don't regret...but...I was talking about to Arman about trying to find a thinning here in Khalharum, establish it like the Vakana did - trade could be great and...maybe...I could find a way to get messages through. But...I think...whether I found out they no longer...or if the Archon tried to summon me back...I don't think I...what if...shadows, I wish I could bring them here, talk to them, find out what happened, give...give them the chance to not live constantly fighting. Once, Sezim and I went on a trade run to the Material and she spent half the time petting the trees. Almost all of the ones in the Shadow Plane are contaminated, she's been trying to work on a way to help them since...I was worried your tree would be contaminated by that...undead...yeah. I've found it difficult to be back on the Material, my senses...my body feels...my feelings are all...and with so many unknown people here I'm scared of...and worried that...does...does it make me...to not want...to be unsure about...." Aibek wordless motioned to their body, "or to not know if or how to continue my pledge to Archon Adilet?...to be..." Aibek tried to continue before their eyes tightly closed as they felt the tears and pain rising up against them again. The witchwolf tried to avoid sniffling as they felt the dryad rubbing their back before Aibek rested their head against her.
"I was a bit worried about my tree too...and any and all of that doesn't make you anything but a person with feelings and needs that change according to how life changes. You traveled a long way to get here, distance and time have ways of changing people, and Khalharum has it's own ways I've found. Neither of us can know all the rhymes or reasons for how things happen, I'm not sure I'd want to...just. Just know doubts happen to all of us, we're all in an uncertain place, and move with what is in front of you now. You'll figure things out and find a way eventually..."
Aibek smiled faintly at Azerna. The pair sat quietly with each other for the while. Azerna eventually pulled back with a sigh, "I have a few things I need to do... I think you do too. Try the twins and other stores, they have a lot of contacts which could help. And if you need me, I'm here...you don't need to cry and carry it all by yourself...even my tree gets help, Aibek, as big and strong as it is." Azerna said, wiping away one of Aibek's tears gently before standing up.
Aibek nodded, face flushed. After a moment, Aibek reached out their hand, "Thank you Azerna. Just a moment, one favour...one more favour...could...as I've said before, Aibek is my family name. I went to Zhen Halfblood as a representative of...of my family, which is how I came here. I would...like...if you would, when we're...like this...if you could...call me Aiday?" nervously stumbling over the request.
Azerna took the hand for a gently squeeze, "Of course Aiday, it's a beautiful name..." she replied warmly with a broad smile before letting go. Aibek blushed brighter with a nod, breath tight in their throat again while watching Azerna leave, closing Aibek's door behind herself. Aibek glanced over to the tray and smiled. Maybe breathing as themself here wouldn't be so hard or risky...