If they had bothered to put sentries on my end of the tunnel, it stood to reason that they would do the same on the other side.  I didn’t want a horde of goblins rushing out of the cave, so I’d have to sneak past that somehow if I wanted to take care of the other sentries.  Would they be looking away from me?  A good sentry would focus on where they expected trouble to come from, which would help me.  So, that meant I couldn’t risk it, no way these were going to be good.  I’d have to use another camo disk, and that would only leave me with one more.  I regretted not having brought some of the crap the first two goblins had with them.  That would have made what I was going to try next more believable.  Not that it was super far back, but I didn’t want to waste ten minutes there and ten more back.  Besides, who knew when more goblins would come around?

     I took off my backpack and lay an axe against it.  I took out the camo disk and looked at the thumb I would have to gash again.  Of all the different magics out there, of course I had to inherit the one where I had to injure myself continually.  The first cut was almost gone by now, only a slight scar remaining.  The power coursing through me from the heart rune would barely notice such a slight wound.  I started picturing a goblin in my mind, what they looked like, what they smelled like.  I would hunch as much as comfortable and drag my backpack, trying to make it look like I was bringing one of their sacks of supplies.  I’m not a big guy, at a couple of inches below six feet, but that’s still at least a foot taller than the goblins I’d met so far.  Maybe they come bigger, but that’s not something I was willing to risk.  I could ask Fen, but I’d much rather he kept concentrating on finding the real threat.

     I sliced the thumb, pressed it to the sigil, and grabbed the backpack with a couple of fingers.  I held the axe in my right hand and kept it covered by the pack as much as I could.

     Look like a goblin, smell like a goblin, sound like-

     I was moving as quickly as I thought a goblin would while dragging a heavy sack.  I took a glance as I crossed the opening to the cave, and it wasn’t reassuring.  It sloped down and opened up at the bottom.  There was a lot of torchlight and some kind of dim purplish glow.  The noise coming from the back of the cavern was a mixture of yelps and snarls, but over all that was the unmistakable sound of metal on stone.  There was some digging going on.  My pack made a bit of noise as I dragged it, so I started adding some guttural grunts and snorts.  Nothing too loud, mind you.

     Light shone ahead and I could make out more details.  They must not have expected much trouble from this side.  I spied a single goblin, slumped on a stool and leaning against the wall.  By the snores coming from him, he was dead asleep.  There was a small fire not too far from him, a sawhorse as a barrier, and nothing else.  I set down the pack and moved to him, making sure he wouldn’t wake up.  I tried to arrange him to look as natural as possible, then shifted the sawhorse to the side.

     Fen, sorry to bug you, but anything else down this tunnel?  If I didn’t have to waste time exploring, I could go back to the cave while my camo disk was still active.

     Already told you, I sense what you sense.  You want me to write it down for you?  I figured he’d feel my irritation, so he required no answer.  

     Deciding that there was likely nothing further down that tunnel, I went back to the opening, got down on my stomach, and peeked around the corner.  Next time I do this, I’ll have better tech.  I don’t know why this wasn’t part of the kit, but I would pay a lot of dough right now for a camera on a flexible wand that would look around corners for me.  They already had augmented reality working through the goggles and arm interface.  How hard could it be to add a camera feed?  That would be first on the agenda when I got back.  Well, maybe not first,—the fate of missing people and all—but it would be on there.

     The cavern floor was a little lower than the tunnel.  The goblins had used the rubble from breaking into the tunnel to make a rough ramp going down four or five feet.  All the action was happening a couple of hundred feet away.  Some kind of crystalline structure stretched from the ground to the ceiling, gently bowing outward toward me as if it was the rib of a giant creature.  That was the source of the purple glow I had seen before.  What looked like goblins were all around it, some on the most rickety scaffolding I had ever seen.  They were chipping and hammering around it.  I could only assume to expose more of it.  On each side of the rib, I could see more goblins chiseling away.  From the glow revealed in a few spots through the stone, it had to be more of the same structures.  I could almost picture it in my head.  Once exposed, there would be eight or ten of these things in a circle.  It had to be the nexus Fen had spoken of.

     The goblins not digging were getting yelled at or whipped by what appeared to be three overseers.  A few others were carrying rocks down a side tunnel to the back right of the cavern.

     Looking at the camo disk, I had a couple of minutes, max.  If I wanted to get a closer look without burning my last one, the time to move was now.  I put the axe away.  If I had to fight that many goblins, it’s not an axe that would save me.

     I took an eldr disk out.  Eldr was an old Norse word for fire.  A lot of my magic theory came from Nadia and old Norse journals, and so that’s how my thought process worked when performing magic.  With an eldr disk, depending on how I framed my will, I could generate a moderate explosion, blazing fire, intense heat, or a ton of smoke.  This was one of my most versatile spells.

     No matter what kind of magic was used, you always needed the same three things.  The first was a power source.  Being able to tap into one was extremely rare.  It was also an innate ability that couldn’t be taught if you didn’t possess the aptitude.  The second thing you needed was an item to focus that power.  Thoughts alone couldn’t do this.  The final element was the caster’s will, or intent, to mold the power through the focus to get the desired result.  This last step was challenging and took crazy amounts of practice.  Think of someone who wants to walk a tightrope.  Just because they want to doesn’t mean they’ll ever be able to.  And if they do, it will have taken countless hours and many falls before ever reaching their goal.  The confidence gained from all that repetition and eventual success was priceless and allowed individuals to progress and get better.

     For me, what powered my magic was blood.  I couldn’t use anybody else’s.  The standard focus for a blood mage was to draw symbols in blood.  I was different, and as far as I knew, the only one like me around.  For some reason, I could mark my body with tattoos or brands.  Focusing on those and the blood flowing through them, allowed me to cast spells quickly.  I could also carve items like my sigil disks, and when applying blood to them, activate the spells.

     I pricked my right thumb and applied it to the eldr disk.  Gathering my thoughts, I took a deep breath and started down the rubble.  Simultaneously powering two spells was difficult, and I would only attempt that with the ones I was most comfortable with.

     If anyone noticed, hopefully it would look like a sentry coming back.  I hadn’t made it very far, perhaps thirty feet, when an overseer started grunting and yelling in my direction, all the while brandishing a short multi-stranded whip above his head.  

     By Odin’s hairy arse.  Remember when I said Nadia followed the old Norse ways?  It makes for creative curses.  How do I blend in from so far away?  The goblins working and carrying rocks all appeared submissive, so maybe if I tried to cower, I could buy a bit more time to look around.  As those thoughts were crossing my mind, I felt wind rushing from behind me toward the worksite. 

     At the same time as I looked up from my fake cower, Fen’s thoughts shrieked, Shield, shield, shield you misbegotten pup, SHIELD!

     A giant ball of flame was heading toward me, sucking up all the oxygen on its way.  In my panic and with sheer animal instinct, I threw my hands up in front of me, dropping the sigils, and leaned away from the heat which was already causing the hair on my arms to curl up and wither.  I channeled all the energy I could muster with next to no prep time through the Aegishjalmur brand on my left palm and pushed out.  The force field manifested in front of me as the ball of flame detonated.

     Never, in all the training I had ever done, was I hit so hard.  The impact broke through the shield and launched me back to the entrance, crashing against the rubble.