11). The Smoking Mountain
The badlands south-east of the Empire was once a prosperous realm dotted with freeholdings, towns, small cities, manors, fortresses and farms. A curving range of mountains protected its own eastern border; a broad and fast moving river came down from those same mountains in the north and formed a lake which separated it from the dense forests and the wildlands and tribes that dwelt within that leafy demise. To the west the small kingdoms not yet aligned with the Empire posed no threat and the south opened on the Salt Sea.
Then the world shook, the mountain screamed, the sky darkened. Ash fell like snow and a river of fire flowed from the east swallowing all in its path. At first the land died; crops, animals, people, cities, towns and fortresses. None could survive near the mountains, few survived even within sight of the cloud wrapped peaks, now plumed with black and the glint of burning red inside.
Seasons passed, a year, then another. Travelers began to cross the old roads, land at the southern ports, explore the empty and ruined keeps and manors. Farmers returned to the edges of the old lands and discovered fields of grain growing wild and thick, flowers like a cascade of a hundred springtimes, animals more plentiful than had been seen in the east since the legends of the first men who'd discovered the western lands. But though the land flourished it was no longer man's, no longer empty and what had come to claim this flourishing land were creatures that no tale had ever told of, no legend or dream had ever conceived. From the depth of the earth had spewed creatures, things, monsters who now thrived in the open air and bright sunshine. Hunted and danced in the moonlight, wondered at the stars, and now lusted for the world which man had thought of as his own.