The early morning twilight sent a cool glow through Scout Commander Vek’s tent canvas. He sighed, and gave up on getting any more sleep. Today was the day, and there was no point in putting it off any longer.
Wearily, he pulled on his boots, opened his tent and breathed deeply from the sharp frosty air. A dozen tents stretched before him, with the obelisk towering over them all. It was a spire of black rock, fifty feet tall, carved in the shape of a dragon. Some of the men had debated prying its glittering eyes loose, but Vek had strongly forbidden it. They were three long days’ march from Anembor Fortress, well past the shadow of Fire Mountain. This deep into the moors, the dragons’ territory, Vek didn’t trust anything. The obelisk was the last landmark the Archmage remembered seeing before his spell failed. Somewhere, within a few miles, they would find the battlefield.
“Wake, you sons of dogs!” he bellowed. “Every man up after the sun is on half rations!”
The sun’s first glimmering rays washed over two perfect rows of soldiers. The studs on their armour gleamed. Each one had a bow and quiver on his back, and a short sword at his waist. All of them had seen things, had lost so much in the past month. Their city, their home, had been rent asunder. Friends and families had burned. Today, perhaps, they would finally find some closure.
After briefing his lieutenants, the scouts split into three parties and began ranging over the hills. The ground was dry, with only sparse grass growing in the frost-hard dirt. Along one ridge, down the valley to the next, on and on they went.
“Hard to imagine anyone living here, isn’t it?” Scout Faedro asked of Vek.
Vek nodded, and took out his farglass. It was carefully wrapped in soft felt, for it cost nearly three years’ pay – if he broke or lost it, the Lord General would demand he pay for the replacement himself. Two or three leagues away, nestled in the shadow of a hill, was a structure. A wide stone terrace, two mammoth statues, a cavernous archway. Very distinctive.
“We’ve gone in the wrong direction,” Vek said. “Return to the obelisk, we’ll take stock with the others.”
Lieutenant Gaber’s party never returned; Vek declared them lost to some draconic sorcery, and led the rest north, on Scout Kaeb’s word.
“It was some kind of pit, Commander, but it didn’t look natural,” he said. “And it was the right distance, too.”
“Nothing about this place is natural,” Vek muttered.
When they crossed the last ridge, Vek thought they had dropped into some kind of hell. There was a hole in the landscape, nearly a quarter-mile across, and half that distance deep. Like some kind of crater, the earth had been scorched black, and glassy rivulets ran through the bedrock. Small green flames winked in and out of existence here and there, like malevolent spirits.
“What in Thor’s name could have happened here?” Vek whispered to himself. “What magic caused such destruction…”