In the dim light, beneath the low-hanging clouds, the sinister grin of the gray pillars sent a chilling warning to anyone foolish enough to approach. From its perch atop the only hill in sight, the massive building loomed over the countryside. There was nothing pleasant about its appearance; there were no towers, balconies, or even windows. Beyond the pillars, it was just a huge, featureless block, which could very well have been carved out of a single slab of stone.
As far as the eye could see, wild prairies with tall grass and scattered shrubs covered the plains. A cold wind swept over the countryside, and the sun, if there even was one, never seemed to shine here. Amid this tranquil sea of gray, in a place that color itself seemed to have abandoned, one thing stood out. A bright-red circle, as big as two tennis courts, stained the field in front of the structure – inside it, the image of a black serpent, coiled and ready to strike.
On any ordinary day, all you would find, for miles and miles, would be this semi-barren wilderness, without a single bird or insect to disturb the endless calm. But today was no ordinary day.
In front of the main gate, two figures stood clutched in each other’s arms. The ground beneath them was scorched and cracked so deep in places that molten lava bubbled up from the earth’s core. Thousands of weapons and suits of armor lay scattered across this wasteland, far into the horizon, and the building itself looked battered and scorched, with two of its pillars in ruin.
Behind the structure, a small group of people sat huddled together, bound to each other by a glowing rope. On either side, two men stood guard, watching over the prisoners through the narrow eye slits on their steel helmets. Each had a mount, an oversized hyena-like creature, strapped with saddle and stirrups. They kept their captives at sword-point while their beasts paced about, snarling and biting at everything that moved, including each other.
Amid this devastation of death and debris, the two combatants stood tangled together. The smaller of the two, a hooded, hunchbacked creature in a dark red robe, grasped the other by the back of his neck. It shrieked, digging its gray claws into the man’s skin. The shrill cry sliced through the stillness, echoing against the walls of the building and startling one of the hyena beasts on the far side of the structure. Before its master could react, the animal instinctively reared up, sprouted wings, and took to the sky.
With one bony arm, the monster lifted the man into the air, its bright yellow eyes glowing from somewhere inside that dark hood. The warrior caught in its grasp was almost lifeless. His once noble uniform, with its silver breastplate and gold-laced tunic, was now dented and ripped to shreds. His purple cape still fluttered in the wind, but the dragon embroidered on it, with its swirls of deep blues and bright yellows, was now almost completely buried beneath a thick layer of soot and dirt.
With his neck firmly in the creature’s grasp, the man opened his mouth, struggling to speak. “I am the Champion–” His voice trailed off into a gargle as the creature's grip tightened, its claws sinking deeper into his flesh.
In the distance, many miles away, a whirlwind appeared in the sky. All eyes turned in that direction as the vortex formed and vanished. With a bitter smile on his lips, the warrior whispered, “They got away. Now I can sleep in peace.”
The creature brought him closer, until they were face to face and their eyes locked. “You will never sleep in peace,” it whispered as its fiery gaze pierced deep into his soul.
In that moment, time seemed to stand still. The warrior began to gasp for breath. Trying to resist, he opened his mouth to speak, but the only sound he could produce was a guttural groan. As panic set in, the man struggled to break the hypnotic gaze, but he could not turn his head. Inside his mind, he could feel the creature probing, digging, searching. With everything he had left, the warrior struggled to close off his mind to the intruder, but he was weak, and the creature’s presence was unlike any other he had felt before. His mind was being taken apart, layer by layer, thought by thought, and there was nothing he could do about it. Gradually, the once defiant warrior relinquished control of his mind.
Like a scientist cutting into a lab rat, the bony creature’s eyes penetrated the deepest thoughts and darkest corners of his mind. Relentlessly it searched, until it reached that last layer, where the most personal experiences and the darkest secrets are safely locked away. With each thought and each memory, it not only learned everything he knew, but it actually lived through it, experiencing the very flavor of the moment. For three full days, they stood there, motionless, locked in each other's thoughts. Then, finally, it released him.
“The child is the key,” the creature continued, as though only a few seconds had passed since it had last spoken. “When the time comes, you will bring me the child.”
The warrior, now no more than a heap of flesh and metal at the creature’s feet, tried hard to understand the meaning of the words. What had this beast seen inside his own mind that he himself had not been able to comprehend? Using both arms to steady himself, the warrior tried to get to his feet, but the world started spinning as soon as he sat up. In the end, the best the man could offer was a defiant stare.
The creature’s face was still not visible, but deep beneath its dark red hood a thin smile spread across its lips. “Don’t worry, you will soon understand.” It waved its hand, and a low rumble shook the prairie. The gates of the building were opening. “Welcome to your personal nightmare!”