This was it. The point of origin. The Nexus. I have travelled through the horrific Abyssal and Ethereal planes but both could not match the terror of the unknown which the Nexus provides. It is an ever-changing plane of flux and the sheer thought that the very ground I step on is not what it seems halted my momentum.
My earlier speech of bravado and courage washed aside for I could not fathom the complexities of this "Astral" plane.
From a very base and crude assessment, this twisted land is a combination of all the pockets of reality we previously traversed. Fire and brimstone juxtaposed beside rejuvenating forests, frozen lakes neighbouring pools of hellfire, Obelisks of Damnation twinned by Shining Spires. Though it looks to be stitched using borrowed elements from other planes of existence, this Astral space is truly unique.
Emboldened by the complete lack understanding which the goblins presented, marching forwards as if it were just another field, I refocused and followed. I did appreciate the looks of concern Grabblesnot and Grimple gave me, reassuring me that my fears were justified. This is a place that I do not believe we have any right being in; the world altering power free-flowing and reshaping is not something a single being could harness. Nor should they attempt to. As such I believe our only goal here is to observe and report, but that said we should make an effort to confirm that this magical anomaly is not the product of an immensely powerful artefact.
With a clear objective to focus our efforts we continued, making notes of any discernible readings the detectors could diffuse. A difficult task as they were not created to handle such large amounts of raw power, but we managed. If we must depart this plane I am positive that the information we have uncovered will prove useful in future endeavours. That thought lightened my heart and lessened the burden from my shoulders; the lives lost on this expedition will have not been wasted.
Once the awe and fear settled to a comfortable medium, I was able to take in our surrounds more completely. Signs of armies marked the landscape, of grand battles recently fought. A sobering observation to be sure. We must remember that there are others searching for the source and some will pay any price to find it. Our band of merry goblin folk were lucky to not yet have encountered any power-hungry rivals, a position that would inevitably change.
"Guard up everyone! We are nearing what I believe to be the apex; the strongest area of magic." I shouted in my most confident of voices "We just need to reach beyond that ridge then we should have what we need. Then we can head home"
The roar of goblins cheering for the finish line was louder than I would have thought possible. That roar soon become more discordant and broken, morphing into yells for attention, spear tips and pointed arms motioning to something behind me.
"Yer had to jinx it, didn'tchya" Grimple chided.
Turning to confirm what my mind had guessed, my shoulders slumped in resignation.
Before the ridge marched a host of elves. An obvious identifier being the large groups of Drakon riders and a larger, singular dragon lord silhouetted against the horizon. They were clearly headed in our direction.
"We've done it once, we can do it again." I said, talking mainly to myself but the goblin wizards nodded in response anyway.
"Eye on the prize, eh boss?" Grabblesnot said without looking at me, his attention focused on the oncoming army.
The goblins re-arranged into their usual contingents and held, awaiting command. I gave none, wanting to see what the opposition was going to do first. Hordes of elves in gleaming armour stood sentinel amidst the Drakon riders and a lumbering Tree Herder. Regiments of archers and smaller clusters of mounted bow-wielding warriors took up the other half of the field.
A single lone figure rode out from the elven blockade, luminous banner trailing behind. A curious manoeuvre and one that I had not yet encountered.
"I think he wants to talk" I guessed.
I must admit that being unfamiliar with formal warfare and also having two other College students as advisors who're also inexperienced in such formalities, I was at a loss. Do I go and see what they what? Is this a trap?
Wary to meet the rider alone, I asked my allies to stand beside me in case their magic is needed.
"King Lendecie, Lord of the Sapphire Knights, Commander of the Lazuli Legion greets you." the rider announced as we approached. An impressive string of words to be attached to an individual. Further impressing my ineptitude with this type of pre-battle meeting, I responded with a simple "Hello".
As not to sound completely rude, I quickly introduced myself and my two flanking goblins. The look of disdain visibly obvious behind the rider’s barbute helmet.
In a most impolite manner, almost as if he had not even heard our names, the rider continued his clearly rehearsed lines. "His Majesty requests your immediate surrender. All actions of evil intent will cease and you will flee all civilized lands on pain of death. This has been foreseen and you will comply."
"Wait a minute, I think you have the wrong people. We're from the Grand College of Magic! We're just here to study the changes and prevent possible control of those seeking its power. We have no evil intentions." I responded, my anxiety creeping through to shake the edges of my voice.
"I suggest you surrender immediately. We have Tydarion Dragonlord and his Drakon retinue among our forces. You cannot hope to claim victory. Lay down your arms and surrender. This has been foreseen and you will comply!"
"I don't think there's much goin' on in that fancy helmet of his" Grabblesnot commented out of the side of his mouth." I suppressed a laugh but couldn't hide the smile that was emerging, my lips pursing in a feeble attempt.
"Listen mate, we just wanna get past and get home. I'm sure you're tired too so leave us be." Grimple said in as diplomatic voice as I've ever heard come from him.
"As you will not submit you have chosen death. Our lands will be protected and you will go no further." With that he spun his steed and cantered back to report to his superiors.
"What's he on about?" questioned Grimple indignantly.
"Them elves are too tight 'round the collar an' it's cuttin' the air off from their brains!" Grabblesnot replied without a pause.
"I suspect we are subject to another misunderstanding. Apparently, whoever's in charge over their thinks one of their seer’s foretold doom and I'm guessing they also think we're the cause. As such they cannot be reasoned with and so we have little choice here."
Grimple spat on the ground. "Stupid elves."
"Let's just try and get past anyway. They seem pretty intent on stopping us and we've numbers on our side. Tell your troops to delay as best they can. Give up the mincing machines as they are much too slow to escape those Drakon riders and we'll try to get as many across in the meanwhile."
We returned to our group and relayed the plan, with the sounds of a marching army providing a troubling background noise as we spoke. The stage set and the group organised we did what we could to keep morale high.
In the shadows of a Darkwood the mincers advanced, flanked by a horde of goblins, war trombones and boom wagons. On the other side of the field the majority of goblin bodies surged forth. Luggit gangs, goblin rabble, mounted archers, and hordes of trolls made a steady advance.
The Bard's Taphouse, the very same from the beginning of our trip, split the forces in two; another victim of the plane shift. Just one more clue as to how unstable this area really was. At least it was a reminder of where we had come from and would act as a beacon of hope.
The flying goblin contraptions made cautious flight paths, weary of the elven ability to cast lightning stronger than a storm. As such they were unable to inflict much confusion with their explosions, being too concerned with staying aloft.
As the goblins made a steady pace, they were assailed by archer fire. The regiments and mounted archers causing significant distress on one goblin horde. While they spent the next few moments trying to reform and retain coherency the trolls blindly took the lead. Whatever arrows that made it through their thick skin would soon regenerate and their bulk would shield the goblin troops from harm.
The mincers found the choke point between the Taphouse and a spire. If they could hold this area it would give the foot goblins enough time to escape, if they survived the rain of arrows. Their smoke-belching engines and the controlled explosions of the inner mechanics causing fear and hesitation in the elven flying contingent. Even though the elves were riding atop powerful winged dragons they still stalled, not wanting to be on the wrong end of those devilish bladed carts. No doubt the promise of an explosive laden wagon nearby adding to the intimidation factor.
It all came to blows soon enough. A goblin horde threw themselves at the Tree Herder in the knowledge that could not win. They could buy time, and so that's what they did. The sheer numbers of goblin warriors preventing access from little else.
Mincers ground down elven palace guard, Drakon riders evaporated goblin troops. War trombone blasted holes in Tydarion's banners, and mounted archers fell to troll charges.
The sneaky Grupp Longnail made an appearance as if out from nowhere (was she in the Taphouse at the time of its translocation?) alongside a lizard-riding wizard. Their speed catching an archer regiment by surprise and disabling further shots. This act lifted the spirits of those nearby and with a mighty huzzah the remaining goblins pushed.
The mincer contingent did their best to hold but could not last under the weight of mage spells. Lightning blasts and a spell which dissolved the metallic workings of the mincers and boom wagons made short work of both. This left very little to fend off the elven spearmen and unmolested Drakon riders. Goblin grenades failed to strike true time and time again, doing little other than creating noise and smoke. Lightning from goblin spells also did little, producing nothing but sparks against shields.
The elven host were too well seasoned to be broken by such trivial missiles. Though they may look bullet strewn and battered they held the line and continued to advance.
The goblin and troll section were able to punch through the archer groups after a bit of effort. While they seemed less armoured and less equipped for close combat, they were still very skilled and agile enough to dodge mortal blows. Still, many goblins made it across... but many lost their lives doing so.
It seemed that fate was not to be on our side this day. As much as we played the game of battle and out positioned our antagonists, it does sometimes come down to the whim of fate. All was not lost though. We did manage to break through and press on and the enemy must have sated their bloodlust enough as they did not chase. That said, it felt as though things could have been very different if the winds decided to blow another direction.
Beyond the ridge was salvation. A well protected ancient ruin from a civilization I did not recognise. After the usual check and recording of the discovery we gathered ourselves, buried those we could, and debriefed. Word began to trickle through about other Truthbringer success stories and we quietly congratulated their efforts. It's easy to forget that we are not in this alone and that others are out there, also doing their best. Staring into the campfire, reminiscing of events recently passed, I looked forward to reading the reports of my fellows.
Though my journey may have ended in a sorrowful departing of unlikely but no less genuine bonds, I must remember:
I have collected invaluable data for the benefit of the College, and in turn Pannithor.
I have seen more than most do over their entire lifetime.
I have experienced things that are unimaginable to the common person.
Most of all, through an exemplary use of wit and cunning, I survived.