Reign of Winter

Artrosa Part 3: Wandering/The Warden
An excerpt from the journal of Nobel Black

Following our exhausting battle with the shadow creatures, we found that Caigreal was missing. She had somehow vanished without a sound. We had assumed she had run from the danger, which turned out to be true but for a wholly different reason.

As we readied ourselves for a cautious nights rest in Artrosa at the end of what we thought was our first day there, we were greeted by an old woman who introduced herself as Jadrenka, the warden of Artrosa. I had been expecting someone more formidable in countenance than a frail looking old crone, but, as I had learned to that point, looks are often deceiving when dealing with witches.

We learned a great deal from Jadrenka, in the way that witches often have much to reveal if you can get past their peculiar mannerisms and cryptic way of communicating. We discovered that Caigreal was actually a hag and Jadrenka’s mother. The two were vying for the position of warden and Jadrenka had won the post over 100 years before, yet Caigreal still sought to cause trouble for her daughter.

Jadrenka confirmed that frost giants and centaurs had indeed invaded Artrosa and that they had reached the Aeon Pit, a magical site deep within Artrosa that could serve to greatly enhance a witches power if it could be survived. This was the primary purpose for Artrosa’s construction, to secure the Aeon Pit. It was also being used as a prison, but for what or whom was still unclear. Jadrenka knew of this incursion but seemed unconcerned as this had happened before and always ended in the death of the invaders. That did not bode well for us, I feared, as we too were invaders of a sort.

Jadrenka allowed us to go on our way with this information but no actual physical assistance, citing over and over that it would be “against the rules”. Being incredibly distrustful of witches, we went in the other direction then the one she indicated only to end of circling back into Jadrenka again, this time in the form of a mother, before finding ourselves back in the maiden statue where we first met Caigreal, who was now absent. With little direction otherwise, we finally reached a consensus to head in the direction of what we were told was the Aeon Pit.

Without Jadrenka’s keys, we were forced to pick the locks on every door and either disarm or spring every trap in our way. This led to a series of 5 magical wards in which I tripped one and disarmed 2 others while Fenn worked out the key phrases that allowed us to pass the others. Unfortunately the ward that I tripped magically aged me for a period of time.

Having wandered for what must have been over a full day through the labirynth of Artrosa, diplomacizing with its strange denizens – and that’s a lot coming from our intrepid team – and slaying that which would not listen to reason, we finally came to a large iron door flanked by frost giants. We quickly dispatched them much blood splatter, and readied ourselves to face what lie beyond.

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The Harrowing
A Fenn and Nobel Tale

Months after the satyr ordeal in which Fenn had pushed him from a tree, Nobel’s broken left arm had healed and with it much of his indignation over the whole affair. Not only had he been angry with Fenn for ultimately breaking his arm (though the strategy probably did save his life) and refusing to apologize about it (it did work after all), but he also took it as a grievance with Arana Snakeroot, his witch master, as she refused to use her magic to heal him. “You’ll learn more this way”, she had scolded him.

Now that the winter had come and he had spent his entire summer in a self-made brace, he was willing to move past it if only for the joy of the full use of his extremities. However, the cold weather and shorter days meant the boys would have to find their entertainment indoors. Fenn enjoyed browsing through Snakeroots books for hours looking for hidden lore, but Nobel grew tired with reading.

“I’ve been learning how to harrow. Wanna try?” Nobel inquired of Fenn.

“It’s not going to be like that time you used the ‘wand of feather fall’ (he says with exaggerated air quotations) on me and I almost killed myself jumping off of the roof is it?”, Fenn replied.

Outraged, Nobel responded in sign, “It’s not my fault devils are resistant to magic.”

“Oh you dick! You totally did that on purpose to get back at me.” Fenn was right. Nobel had done that on purpose, but he refused to admit it. It was funnier that way, so he feigned ignorance.

“I guess I just haven’t gotten a handle on which of her wands does what”, signed Nobel.

“Whatever, just show me the harrow deck”, said Fenn.

The harrow deck was beautiful in the way an antique can be both old and dilapidated yet still exotic. Many harrow decks were like this, an heirloom passed down a family line or from master to disciple. The years left their mark on a well worn deck, but they also instilled it with a sense of gravity, as if you were communing with all the other cartomancers who had ever handled the deck. Snakeroot’s was gilded with gold leaf on a background of green and black. With age and handling, much of the gold leaf had worn away leaving smooth patches over the otherwise well worn card backs.

Nobel dealt the cards for Fenn. He formed a cross shape on the table representing the four cardinal directions and the axis of good and evil, law and chaos.

The central card served as the foundation of the reading and would be the lens through which the other cards would be interpreted. It was The Vision. It suggested neutral chaos. Unintended alterations of course and destiny. The sudden happenstances of life. The card was the suit of books, a suit of knowledge, study, and tradition. Fitting for Fenn who ever sought lore.

The left most card stood for beginnings and origins. Nobel flipped The Owl. This indicated wisdom or study, but it’s suit stars could also represent divination, destiny, or foreshadowing.

The bottom card represented an impactful event on the harrowed individual. Nobel revealed
The Big Sky from the suit of hammers. The suit meant strength both in body and mind, but could also mean battle. The Big Sky depicted slaves reaching to the sky as their manacles shattered. Nobel interpreted it as sudden freedom, but also a sense of overwhelming.

The right card stood for a talent. Nobel revealed the Brass Dwarf, a solitary figure smoking peacefully as everything around him burns. It’s suit was shields suggesting safety, preparedness, stamina, and pride. Nobel indicated it may mean calm collection or indifference.

The final card, the top card, was symbolic of the harrowed individuals future. Nobel turned it slowly as the boys both looked puzzlingly at the image before them. It was the Foreign Trader, a neutral card from the suit of Books.

“What does that mean?”, whispered Fenn.

Nobel looked at it for a long time before he spoke. “I don’t know”, he lied. In the cards Nobel read that Fenn would have to one day face a temptation, make a choice that may damn him. “I guess I don’t really know how this thing works after all”, he signed.

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Artrosa Part 2: Drained
An excerpt from the journal of Nobel Black

We wandered aimlessly through the bowels of Artrosa the second half of our first day in the immense dungeon. Pretty clearly the statues were be linked in some manner as we found ourselves no longer surrounded by sculptures of beautiful nude maidens and instead kept encountering rooms of rotten corpses, decaying flesh, and iconography of the old Crone.

Our newest friend, Caigreal, though quite charming had been less than helpful. Despite seemingly allowed access to roam freely about by her jailer, the mysterious “Warden”, she seemed to know absolutely nothing about the compound. Either that or she chose to share very little. Perhaps we just needed to show her she was safe with us. Oddly, despite initially expressing a desire to leave, she was more than happy to accompany us deeper and deeper along on our journey.

The latter half of the day consisted of nothing but exhaustion. First a weird trio of half satyr, half nymph alchemists were vivisectioning animals and using magic to keep them alive rather than let them die. This enraged all of us. Even Fenn, who normally cares only for the pursuit of knowledge, could not accept this endeavor and cast the first magical bolt that led to a scuffle both on the ground and in the air among a series of rope ladders and walkways. Fenn paid for this by being the target of the alchemist’s poisonous darts and at one time found himself so weakened that he couldn’t even stand.

Selene channeled her faith to heal Fenn of his affliction and we soon found ourselves face to face with a necromancer. Selene was full of surprises when she did not insist that we kill the necromancer and her pride of zombified cats, and instead she actually talked our way out of a fight and gathered useful Intel about a demon worshipping centaur that has led frost giants in an invasion of Artrosa. It was likely he that sent the welcoming committee of giants to destroy us when we first arrived in Ioboria.

Though Selene still does her best to offer our enemies a chance to surrender (though no one ever seems to accept this offer), she has a new, harder edge. She is snarky and sarcastic where she used to be overly trusting. I pray this exposure to witchcraft doesn’t harden even her heart as there would be no hope for the rest of us. Fenn has become nearly mad with his new powers and I am beginning to think that my longtime friend may have secret ambitions for which he would push us aside if needed.

We ended the day after being ambushed by a clutch of shades and shadows. I briefly considered a display of my own divine light against the abominations, but there numbers were too great and I knew we would be overwhelmed. Instead, I did everything I could to shield my companions against the shades, bolstering their defenses, heightening their agility, and calling for divine aid to protect them. In that darkness I became our shield, a role for which Selene was typically better fashioned. Selene did what she did best and lit the darkness like a torch with her divine brilliance. This served both to allow Taryn to see and to draw much of the shadows attention. Taryn and Fenn were then able to do what they do best: kill shit. By the end, Selene could barely stand and the rest of us were also somewhat drained by the shadows embrace so we cautiously made camp.

Selene led us in a prayer to help soothe our fatigued bodies and minds as we hoped the next day in Artrosa would be better.

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A Familiar Magic

Many days did I spend within the nearly endless passageways and chambers of Artrosa. Or should it be counted by nights? Who is to say when there is no sun or moon to help mark the passage of time. I lived on vermin and the ley energies that suffused the place for what could have been years or even decades.

There were many dangers in those days: the gorgon, the fiendish satyr, the enchantress, and the witchtree among them. The centaur was the most fearsome of all. I did my best to stay in the shadows to avoid them in order that I might live another day. When my master died I fled deep into the depths of Atrosa and lost my way back to the surface. I feared I would never see the majesty of the night sky again.

Then after what seemed like an eternal night, the strangers came. One, a beautiful woman, wore simple armor yet carried an ornately decorated shield. She had a glow about her as if she was bathed in celestial light. Another seemed the opposite, shrouded in cloth that looked like shadow, yet his face no less beautiful. Though he found comfort in shadows as I did, he also seemed to channel light to his colleagues. What a strange dichotomy. The third wielded 2 blades like a whirlwind. She would pin foes between her blades and her companions’ shield like a dragon chewing its prey.

The fourth seemed strangely familiar yet I am sure we had never met. He looked slightly fiendish yet this did not seem to bother his companions. He wielded fire like the others wielded shadow, light, and steel. Though the shadowy male was also a mage, his magic seemed very unusual both in its effect and its invocation; he could do so without speaking using only hand gestures which often resembled the prayers of a cloistered monk. The fire mage, however, his magery seemed all too familiar. Not just the spells but the mannerisms of the invocation, the style. His casting tongue I did not recognize, although he conversed with his companions in Taldon. His hand gestures seemed so similar to that of my late masters, though his movements were more extravagant as if magic was part showmanship.

I continued to follow in the shadows and from a distance. I saw in them not only a chance for freedom but also a curious mystery: why did the fire mage wield arcane energies in a fashion akin to my deceased master?

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The Winding Way
A Reign of Winter Tale

The Winding Way is a path to power followed by many witches and sorcerers. It is a cyclic wheel whereby the advancement of one mage means the decline of another. Such do practitioners of witchcraft wax and wane in strength as the seasons and phases of the moon.

There are many paths to power, but few are as quick and addicting as the Winding Way. The highs and lows of these tidal swings in power provide a rush to the arcane caster more euphoric than any drug. Human kief and satyr smoke pale in comparison to the experience of riding the wave of power granted to those at the top of the Winding Way. And when the inevitable fall comes, you know that if you just hang on that you can have it all again.

It is this unreliability which have led most practitioners of witchcraft to seek power via more difficult but sustainable methods such as sacrifice or soulbinding. However, if you need the power now, there are few paths more tempting than the Winding Way. It was exactly this lust for power which put me in my current, undesirable predicament.

My previous master was a powerful mage in her own right, but even the most powerful can be brought low by the uncontrollable forces of nature. Her child had become infected with a rare and seemingly incurable disease that was slowly killing her. Despite her potent magical energies, she lacked the power to rid the child of the affliction. She sought the council of the regions most acclaimed healers but none had seen this sickness before and none knew how to remove it from the child. In desperation she put her trust in a coven of witches who showed her the Winding Way as a means to attaining the power she would need to save her offspring. I advised her to find another way but she knew Pharasma was coming for her child and would not wait.

My master and I followed the leylines to several sites, gathering the arcane energies held at each location. It was then that I learned to attune myself to the leylines, a skill which would keep me alive long after my natural life should have ended.

By the time we reached Artrosa, my master had become so obsessed with the acquisition of arcane power that she had forgotten entirely about her child. We had been on the Winding Way for 5 years, long after the child perished and had become nothing more than a skull to which my master, her sanity lost, spoke to most sleepless nights. Her grisly death at the hands of the witch tree came as a relief and allowed me to free myself of our bond.

Since that time I have stalked the nearly endless passageways of Artrosa, surviving on vermin and the powerful leyline energies that converge there. I have learned to harness the shadows of this place in order to keep myself alive. My continued existence is my penance for failing to save her. Should I ever get free, I swear vengeance on the witches of the Winding Way who used my master to further their own ambitions along the path.

I am Seph’endrell, the lost one in Atrosa’s shadow.

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Changes

Where to begin? So much has happened in so short a time. At moments I find myself wondering if this is some illusory ploy with some unknown motive. Leaving my home I expected the world to give me enlightenment and understanding while trying to help further my own quests to try and ascertain what had happened to my parents so many years ago. I did not expect however to find that I am not human, well at least not wholly. Although it is almost humorous after finding myself in the company of the mutt spawn devil blood that is Tiefling the antithesis of my people. Aasimar, how can it be that my own people are so foreign a concept in my mind. I wonder if the abbot knew and withheld this information from me for some unknown reason. Never less this does greatly increase the trust I have in my love and fealty for my lady Sarenrae maybe this is part of what has always driven me to serve in her light. I have slowly found these last couple days that I can create the light of the dawnflower and make dark as if day when I so desired. I may not have had the gift of divine spellwork that my brothers and sisters had but I suppose this does better explain the ease at which I create the nimbus of light in my times of need. Maybe in my trials this adventure places upon me I will further unlock understanding with Sarenrae’s guidance and some day when we finish this quest which has me questioning much of my moral guidelines at times, perhaps I will seek out and try to find others of my kind.

The morality of my current quest leaves me on edge. Where do we draw the line to keep what is good about us. I must hold faith that all are capable of redemption but know when to pick my battles as I find myself these days surrounded by much evil and much that appears sinister but the gifts of my lady deem it not so. I will remain vigilent in these times focus on protecting my companions as best as I am able even as Noble appears to have control over things that seem darker than our power hungry tiefling wizard friend. I can only postulate as to the sources of these things and hope that whatever is happening with him continues to refrain from malice. So where does this leave me? A lone light in cold and foreign lands working to free the queen of witches and hope that she takes her daughter with her and leaves this place for another hundred years. Helping evil to usurp a more imminent evil, tough for anyone that values their morality.

So here we are in a land no one from our lands has been to in a long long time if at all and in giant effigy’s of the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. I fear my training has left me not equipped as I should with the amount of Fey that we have encountered during this quest. Defintely a lesson in that you don’t need evil to do ill and not all evil is black and white may we not live to regret our decisions in proceding with this endeavor. I hope the light sustains us and helps guide us safely to our next destination wherever it may lead, Sarenrae guide and protect me and my compatriots and give me the strength to grow and serve in the ways you deem fit.

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Artrosa Part 1
An excerpt from the journal of Nobel Black

Over the 2 day hike to Artrosa, several times we felt the passing of a large shadow over us yet could not see its point of origin. Who knew what terrible beasts dwelled in this largely uncivilized land. All I knew was that plague had wiped out the previous human civilizations here long ago. Fenn knew a few other things which he was more than happy to expound upon. One of the better parts about being deaf is that it is easier to pretend I’m paying attention when I am not. Even my comrades seem to forget I am deaf sometimes so I just make sure to nod my head a lot as hearing people do. Fenn’s erudition is impressive but also sometimes used as a point of arrogance. Then again, he does tend to be right.

Our guide departed shortly after our arrival to Artrosa. We thanked her briefly and then set about our work. It’s hard to put down in writing how impressive Artrosa was. The scale of these three statues was incredible. We were as bread crumbs at the feet of a giant.

Fenn spied a landing near the top of each statue using scrying magic, but ascent would be a challenge. After much deliberation we decided to scale a nearby cliff as there looked to be a solid stone beam running from the cliff to the heads of the statues that could serve as a walk way. Taryn identified a primitive climbing tool but we decided to use spider climb on my companions while I flew to the top. I kept one of the climbing spikes to use as a chew toy for Taryn. The moon was waxing and I knew she would have trouble containing her wolf side much longer. Her restraint to that point had been impressive but she would need to turn eventually.

At the top of the cliffs we traversed the stone walkway to the head of the maiden statue. There we encountered a witch tree guarding the entrance to the dungeon inside the Maiden where we hoped to find the keys we needed to move the Dancing Hut. The witch tree demanded blood sacrifice but it seemed content if not a little perturbed to let us through upon proof that we were Baba Yaga’s outriders.

Inside the maiden was a large complex that descended slowly. We were attacked by an Ettin witch which we overcame handily, before entering a room with a fiendish flying satyr and a many limbed plant creature. We divided our efforts with Fenn and myself bringing down the satyr and Taryn and Selene striking the plant creature. Selene took the battle to the heart of the beast when it grabbed her and swallowed her whole. She came out of its corpse as a gleaming specter of light as if it’s own soul was escaping. The satyr became invisible and fled.

It was as we were hunting this satyr down that we came upon the lady. Then things got a little out of hand. Why do these things always turn south the minute a lady gets involved? However, that is a tale for another time.

Closing thoughts: I love my new wings but every time I fly I feel a sense of fear. It seems to be coming from Lucky through our empathic link. Understandably, being a hare he is somewhat uncomfortable leaving the ground, but I have come so far and learned so much about my power that I cannot allow this fear to ground me. Lucky has been a good friend and ally. He has brought me through many dangers with his keen eyes and ears, but where we are headed may be overly dangerous for him to follow. To compel him to do so may be cruel. Though it pains me, we may have to part ways soon.

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Iobarian Welcome
An excerpt from the journal of Nobel Black

The wind in my hair felt amazing as I had my first opportunity to hit the wide open skies with my ebony wings. It would have been perfect if not for the 8 frost giants that were hurling giant stones my way.

We had opened the dancing hut’s door to find ourselves in a clearing somewhere in Iobaria. Immediately we noticed the frost giants. They were hard to miss given their imposing stature. We never did find out why they were there or what issue they took with our presence as they never made any attempt to communicate. Before anything could be said they were advancing upon us with axes and thrown boulders, their intentions made clear.

Selene and Taryn together engaged the nearest target. I took to the air to get a better vantage point and stay out of reach of the titans. Selene and Taryn took heavy damage as they took on 3 frost giants at once. Inctedibly the stood their ground without giving an inch and neither faltered.

Fenn stayed on the safety of the hut’s porch and rained down fiery doom on the frost giants. Though my aerial presence and Fenn’s infernal magics made us targets, it turned out to be the safest places we could be.

Fenn was quite surprised when the hut itself stood up and unleashed its power upon the giants, alternating between smashing them with its beak and pinning them with it’s clawed feet. Fenn defended himself and the hut with burning hands and fireballs as it moved about the clearing, even teleporting short distances. To observers it would have appeared as if the hut itself was breathing fire. I think Fenn felled 3 of the mighty warriors on his own. His late parents, themselves mages, would have been proud to see him that day!

With the battle won, I soared above the treeline looking for evidence of Artrosa, the statues commonly referred to as “The Three Who Watch”. These were ancient statues put in place by Baba Yaga herself long ago for purposes unknown to men. As far as the eye could see, even from bird’s eye viewing, only endless forest surrounded us on all sides. We had no clue which direction to go.

After a few hours of searching the nearby woods for some kind of trail, we were approached by a group of centaur. They were friendly enough once they learned Fenn and Selene spoke Elven and that we had slain 8 frost giants. We were escorted to their village where we met their chief. He gave us food and shelter for the night and offered us the aid of a guide to Artrosa which was just 2 days march from the village. We thanked him with an offering of yeti fur and 2 masterwork flutes which we had accrued on our journey.

Selene and Fenn did most of the talking and did not disclose our true purpose to free Baba Yaga. I understand their reluctance to inform people that we may be aiding one of Golarion’s greatest murderers, but I am starting to think we will need to trust someone eventually. We cannot keep going into everything so blindly. If we are honest, or at least a little more forthcoming, we may uncover useful information or allies.

On a related note, it seems despite our palaver inside the dancing hut, there remains some distrust amongst us. Selene seemed a bit taken aback by the manifestation of my darkness. She has eyed me with distrust despite also manifesting light when I healed her grievous wounds against the frost giants. In time perhaps she will come to understand that I can be both. Not all who dwell in darkness do so for nefarious ends; the darkness can also be used to shelter the light.

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Identities
An excerpt from the journal of Nobel Black

I had a long conversation with my companions today. I cast a truth spell so that we could converse honestly. It was a good opportunity to clear the air. As it turns out, while I was in meditation, Taryn and Selene spent the time honing their battle skills and teamwork. They are really coming together which is good for Taryn personally and our party as a whole.

Selene had also been bothered by Zorka’s implication that several of us weren’t human. She spent some time on a personal identity quest of her own and discovered, using the hut’s vast library with Fenn’s help, that she is an aasimar. I sympathize with her confusion. She suddenly finds herself having to change her entire world view to accommodate this revelation. She seems to be adjusting to this incredibly well, almost taking pride in her celestial heritage. In some ways it may bring her closer in her devotion to Sarenrae.

Mirroring Selene, I have adopted a new perspective on my own being. I have learned to accept that I am different, and no matter what I am, it’s who I am. I am going to stop fighting it and just be me. I’ve stopped considering my hauntlings as something other and begun to acknowledge that they are simply part of who I am. I think I can find strength in Selene’s resolve.

Taryn still insists she is not a winter wolf, but I have my doubts. It’s possible that like Selene, she simply doesn’t know she is. I will get to the truth in time. Regardless, I am finding I trust her and am happy she is with us. Losing Nesteruk was hard, but she is every bit the warrior he was.

After several days of rest and introspection, we were ready to get back in Baba Yaga’s trail. We encountered several trials that led us to Iobaria, a land even further north. I was able to palaver with a living dream in order to pass the first test. Selene’s confidence led us through the second trial. Fenn, Selene, and Taryn were the heroes of the third trial of strength by combat with a fiendish boar. Fenn and I had a chance to flex our newly granted powers as Baba Yaga’s riders. This energy is impressive but I have to wonder what the final cost will be.

After Fenn deciphered the clues to our destination in Ioboria, we found ourselves standing outside the hut, in yet another strange and foreign land (and cold. Why is it always so fucking cold?). As is our luck, we were immediately surrounded by 8 frost giants, but that is a tale for another time.

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Taryns Thoughts
Moments of Reflection

What have I gotten myself into? I ask myself this every day. When Solveig sent me along on this journey it felt as though I was finally where I was supposed to be. I continue to have doubts however. I certainly never imagined that I would be making a pact with a witch, the Crone herself at that. Always as I traveled North my path seemed clear, well lit, now it is dim and obscured. All I can do is trust in myself and pray for Cayden’s guidance.

I should also learn to trust in my companions but I am finding that difficult. Fenn seems to be looking down his nose at everyone and carries himself with an air of superiority, though I have yet to determine what it is that he thinks makes him superior to any of us. He seems to crave knowledge and the promise of power and I fear that if the witch were to tempt him that he may not be able to resist. I will keep my eye on him and hopefully will come to trust him as Nobel seems to.

Nobel, this one is a mystery. He seems at once to be haunted and yet happy, full of darkness and yet a shining light. And that rabbit that seems to be more than a rabbit always by his side. Even with all the inner confliction he seems to be experiencing I believe him to be a trustworthy companion and a good judge of character. He seems very fond of Fenn and does not seem to be phased by his smug attitude, I will keep this in mind as I try to build my trust for this group.

On the subject of trust there is Selene. This woman and her divine connection surely saved my life over the first two days we spent in this hut. After bringing me back to health and showing me nothing but kindness and respect we have developed a tentative friendship. We have been able to spar together and have become much more comfortable with the ways we can work together in battle. We have developed several combat maneuvers that will allow us to achieve together what we would not alone. These whirling dances of death will surely aid us in the trials to come.

All of this, the new power that surges within me, this acceptance of an evil witches plan, and this strange group of companions that I find myself a part of, must surely be part of Cayden’s plan for me. I will hold true to my my standards and my personal code and trust in this.

And what is up with this damn room?! As I sit here writing this I swear things are changing, shifting. Nothing I can put my finger on but when I am training it seems as if the room itself is helping, shifting slightly, an obstacle now where I could swear there was not one before. And now even as sit writing I can feel the room, a sense that I cannot fully grasp, as soon as I try it is gone. And where is that damn music coming from…

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