It has been a long and tiring journey though not without its moments. I have experienced more in the last few weeks than I have in years, excluding practical assessments within the College. I have seen wonders none would believe and worked alongside creatures and beings others wouldn't dare to. Yet at the time of writing this journal entry there were trials yet to face that would test my resolve.
Having skirted the boundary of the Empyreal plane to avoid the ire of its natural and unnatural inhabitants, myself and my goblin companions reached what we believed to be the next step. A distinct chill and ominous haze marked the entry point into the next magical plane. As I inch ever closer to the source of this phenomena my grasp on reality becomes twisted. I consider myself to be strong-willed yet even I am tested with each step; I fear for my brethren of lesser mental fortitude.
How much longer can this go on for? How many pockets of extra dimensional planes exist and are manifest within the Rift?
Is there even an epicenter to all of this? The data procured so far seems to suggest there is but I am starting to doubt. Perhaps I was not cut out for this task. I daresay the coordinators could not foresee the extent of the magical anomaly and thus did not commit the required resources. On the other side of the coin, the heads of the competing institutions would have also fallen short.
Regardless of my uncertainty I have passed the point of no return and predict my salvation, for good or ill, will soon be found.
The plane that presents before me is unlike any other. A land of mist and fog, magical in nature (so my detectors report) but I suspect there is more to it. This hesitance and doubt... a symptom of proximity to this Etheric space? It must be. These inward, negative thoughts were not present until we approached the barrier. Something that the magic detectors cannot sense are mental intrusions; they aren't calibrated that way.
With this understanding, I can differentiate and separate those genuine feelings with those suffused by the magic about us. One of those genuine feelings is fear… not fear for myself but fear for my fellow Truthbringers. Did they notice the manipulations on the mind as I have? Or have they succumbed?
"Steel yourself as we pass through this place. It will affect your mind and try to trick you into seeing and feeling things that are not true. We must hurry." I said to my goblin friends.
Grimple nodded and relayed my instructions to the other goblin leaders. How they were going to fortify themselves against an invisible enemy as strong as fear, I could not know.
"Get in line ya' gits! If I see any one of ya' filthy dogs try ta' run, I'll stick ya' me-self!" I heard one of the leader's yell.
So that's how they'll combat the elements; fight fear with fear. Crude, simple, effective. If nothing else comes of this endeavor, at least I have learned first-hand the ingenuity of goblin kind.
We ventured forth into the grey, guards up and vigilant. Anything could assail us from any direction as visibility was poor. I recall noticing how quiet the goblins were, there footfalls and hushed speech to one another the only sounds made. Distant otherworldly screams were audible somewhere off in the distance; too far to truly worry about but close enough to straighten a spine and make hairs stand on end.
About a half day march into the shadow we made camp. Unlike our encounter with the orcs at the beginning of this quest, the goblins were deadly silent. None were game to make too loud a noise lest it attract the attention of the unknown beasts.
Sounds of a distant battle could be heard which drew my attention back to my compatriots.
"Have you received word from any of our group?" I asked Grabblesnot.
"Nah, not since last time an' I don't reckon' we're gonna 'til we're outta this place"
"Yeah it's hard enough keepin' track of are-selves let alone anybody else" Grimple added. "We best rest up as quickly as we can an' get movin'. I don't like it 'ere."
I nodded in agreement.
A fitful, sleepless night (or was it still day?) followed where I was assailed by images of creatures I cannot describe. Creations of a raving madman, the screaming of elves, and a sense of hopelessness within a void. The two goblin wizards recounted the same experience, evidence that the Ethereal plane was the culprit.
"Let us be done with this place" I couldn't help but exclaim. Sentiments felt by all and it showed; I've not seen a force as disorganized as the goblins move so quickly and efficiently, all without protest I might add.
I guessed at our current position within the plane based of the feeling of dread trying to settle in my psyche. It was almost overwhelming. This strength of the mental barrage was the identifier telling me we've reached the midpoint. I surmised that's where the plane would be strongest.
"We must be at the center. We're halfway there!" I said a little too loudly, excitement of my discovery pushing any dire thoughts away. I did not receive the expected jubilant reaction to the news, instead we heard screeches and breathless screams. The point of origin sounding much closer than any would have liked.
I turned to the wizards and they understood from my expression that we were under attack.
An explosion of movement followed, any discretion or attempt to remain hidden gone in an instant. Orders were barked, ranks were formed, and engines were brought to life. Flames and black smoke belching from their exhausts like an old drunkard after a large meal.
With the army arranged and lined up in practiced fashion, we waited. It was still difficult to see as the abnormal mist and fog drifted about so I turned to my other senses for a sign of what faced us.
I closed my eyes tight and strained my ears to focus making out sounds of heavy foot falls, probably from some immense creature. A heartbeat or two later the sound was replicated... there was more than one monster, perhaps three.
Then the sounds of clinking and scraping metal drifted through; suits of plate armour possibly. Worn by at least two full regiments of seasoned soldiers as their march was synchronised and in perfect step. That realisation was followed by the recognisable sound horse hoof on stone, though it didn't resonate like usual. It was lighter and hollower as though the animal was underfed and insubstantial.
Piecing the cues together I opened my eyes in shock: the undead! Was this a manifestation of the Ethereal plane or has a necromancer somehow managed to traverse through the Empyrean plane? Surely the former as I cannot fathom a plane so full of life and light would do anything but repel a user of the dark magic... unless that user was not evil. Surely that could not be the answer; there are so few reasonable beings who could command the deceased.
As I tried to filter through memories of those particular practitioners, ruling out each one as I recalled them, a goblin war cry erupted. The startling bawls and whoops broke my concentration as I refocused towards the oncoming threat. Their steady, shambling advance bringing them ever closer and also a better view of our opponents. Troops of revenant cavalry leading the way with the plate-mail wearing infantry regiments following close behind; Soul Reavers! They were the least of our worries as three revenants on immense wyrms broke through the fog. Rounding out the undead forces were the ubiquitous regiments of zombies, wights and a powerful looking vampire atop a jet black nightmare.
The most surprising of all the figures marching towards us was also the least adorned for battle. Wearing similar vestments as myself, even down to the colour and trim. Was it someone who had slain a Truthbringer and stolen their robe? A vile imitation? Every thread I followed ended in a terrible conclusion. I was frozen in thought, all the possibilities swirling about my mind and no doubt the Etheric plane adding to my inability to accept what I was witnessing.
As the undead masses continued to stride forwards and no longer wanting to wait for an order from me, the goblin wizards took it upon themselves to lead (so I was later told... my mind was too occupied to even command my limbs to move let alone command an army). Shouting orders, the force split into three fighting groups with machine and monsters on one side, goblin regiments and wizard riding a lizard on the other. Holding the core were the hordes of goblin warriors with the flying grenadiers soaring overhead.
Unaware of my surrounds and the din of battle muffled by deep introspection I was brought back to reality by a sharp and stinging pain expanding from my cheek. "Wake up ya' fool and get outta the way!" Grimple shouted, shaking his hand like he had just touched a hot iron.
The sounds of the fight growing louder with each second, my eyes refocusing on the present, I shook the remaining mind-fog from my head.
"What?" I asked idiotically questioned, knowing exactly what was happening but needing a moment to take in everything.
"Get goin'!" he repeated more succinctly, shooing me off like a cat on a windowsill. Feeling my face flush with embarrassment, or perhaps it was the slap Grimple dealt, I scolded myself for my lapse in concentration and obliged Grimple's request.
Once I secured my place of observation atop a grim looking, weather-worn hillock, I was able to clearly make out the leader of the opposition. It was not a necromancer at all; it was Khrone, a College student and practitioner of the arcane, especially with summoning magics. He has studied the techniques of Ophidian sorcery much like that of the famed Jarvis, though not to the same obsessive level. Why was he attacking us?
I jump up and down waving my arms, yelling out to get Khrone's attention. I could understand his possible confusion when faced against the usually villainous goblin-kin, but both Grabblesnot and Grimple should have been close enough to be recognised.
I was successful in attracting his eye but it was not catalyst that I thought would halt the advance. Instead, it seemed to surge the undead on. What had I done to cause such hatred? I know I didn't converse much with Khrone but we were on friendly terms. We even worked together on a group assignment and passed with flying colours.
I called out once more for him to stop and this time he replied.
"Back with you foul demon! I shall not fall for your tricks this time!"
My follow up response held fast within my throat as I struggled to decipher what he meant by those words. Demon?! Was he mad?
“No! It’s me, Bensome! You helped me re-animate the shell of a tidal serpent two summers past, remember?”
“Hold your forked tongue Incubus. Your mental manipulations have been foiled and you will not escape this time!”
He WAS mad! I fear the fog has muddled his perception. He doesn’t know what he is seeing and so we must recombobulate and realign his awareness. I made the goblin wizards cognizant of my discovery and pleaded they pull their punches. Khrones army wouldn’t actually be made of the undead but of summoned creations that were made to resemble the results of necromancy. He himself could be harmed though, something I wanted to avoid.
The three giant wyrms were proving difficult for the goblins to fell, their immense bulk and hardened carapace too strong for goblin arms. Whatever damage they did manage to cause was soon repaired by the innate life-leeching abilities the undead possessed.
Meanwhile, the revenant cavalry troops did not compare, the weight of goblin numbers laying them low.
The vampiric infantry, the Soul Reavers, were a force to be reckoned with. As evasive and slippery goblin warriors could be, they could not withstand the charge of a single regiment. Vampiric speed is wondrous to observe for those able to keep out of harm's way. I suppose that same speed would be a blessing for the unfortunates, as a swift death is guaranteed. As such, many goblin lives were lost in but a few moments. Those goblins of larger build, the Luggits, seemed to take the destruction of their lesser kin to heart. Their charges dismissing the summoned undead with ease. Even a Soul Reaver contingent were crushed by the downhill charge of one the brutish goblin mobs, their fury uncontrollable, and their hefty clubs unstoppable.
As zombies disintegrated and skeleton frames were ground to dust, forces on both sides were thinning. Still, the goblins outnumbered the undead two to one. This left Khrone exposed and clever Grimple took the opportunity to strike. Casting a spell I’ve not yet encountered before, the goblin wizard shaped the energy of the Etheric plane and focused it on the confused Khrone. Grimple later explained that it was a spell to reduce the effectiveness of the opposing mages' spells.
"Makes it so he gotta get up real close-like or he 'ain't castin' nothin’." were his exact words.
Curious that Grimple was able to harness powers from the plane itself. I hope he reports this finding back to the department heads once this is all over.
With Khrone's abilities somewhat diminished and without a guard of summoned undead about him, the flying grenadiers took aim, missing fantastically. Explosions from the powder bombs erupting about the wizard but leaving him unharmed. I cannot decide if this was intentional or just poor aim. I hope the former but suspect the latter.
The great wyrms continued to crush and stomp all they came into contact with. Three mountainous beasts, unwavering and immovable, the dominant force on the field. We couldn't out hold much longer.
As fortune may have it, the explosions from the Wingged goblin grenades were close enough to lift Khrone off his feet and into a nearby structure. As he picked himself off of the ground and rubbing the back of his head, the look of understanding and recognition washed over him.
"Halt!" he cried, his creations freezing in their place, undead statues awaiting their next command. "Bensome? Is that you? And those goblins... Grapple-something and Gr... Gripnal?"
The goblin force taking the pause in the fight to withdraw from the monstrous assailants in case they sprung back into motion.
"What's the big idea?! Why wouldn't you listen?" I asked as I cautiously made my way onto the field.
"This place... you… you were not what I see now. I cannot remember how long I... " he trailed off something unintelligibly. "I fear I may have succumbed to the power of this place. I apologise for the destruction I have wrought, the lives I have unwittingly taken."
Khrone dismissed the remaining undead, their forms falling apart into particles and melding with the ever-present haze.
"Best you come with us until we reach the barrier. We can't have you falling victim again and assaulting others of our institution." I demanded. Khrone nodded solemnly and apologetically, the weight of guilt heavy upon his shoulders.
We buried all we could and re-grouped the remaining force before continuing the journey. As we distanced ourselves from the deepest part of the Etheric plane, the consistent fog began to break away. Spirits were lifted and the mental struggle to focus receded. While the feeling of relief to finally leaving this place was welcome, the uninvited feeling of anxiety came with it. We could not predict what was to come next, especially considering the proximity to our ultimate goal.
The barrier was in sight and so was our goal. With trepidation we approached the threshold but did not cross.
"We camp here and prepare. Beyond this border lies what we came to investigate. It is bound to be dangerous but there may also be limitless and invaluable gains. Those too afraid may leave and there will not be any judgement if you do. To those who remain, I thank you for your loyalty and ability. We have come far and made discoveries that the College could only imagine. Our world will be better off due to our efforts. So we press on valiantly and face any challenge with wit and cunning. We will be victorious!" I proclaimed in my best headmasters impersonation.
It must have gone over well as I received an uproar of whoops and huzzahs, or whatever the goblin equivalent is. To be honest it was quite hard to decipher, but at least the energy was there and the general vibe was positive.
I've never been one for speeches but couldn't help but be pleased with my own efforts. It is just a shame that my audience wasn't the esteemed College faculty but a throng of goblins and a “near-living” mage (I try to avoid the use of the word “undead” when referencing Khrone as I know it upsets him, not that he’d admit it).
Khrone thanked us again and apologised thrice more before departing, off to recover in the isolation he prefers. As we settled down and mentally prepared for the following days adventure I faced my goblin wizard friends.
"Are we really ready for this?”
"Wit'n cunnin' " Grabblesnot replied with a wink and a nudge.
Grimple just lifted a leg, turned slightly to show me his back, farted, and laughed.
"Wit and cunning..." I sighed.