The island was burning.
Lord Seth Arnsworth stood on the balcony of his keep. It was perched on the central hill of the little island that was his fiefdom, and from his balcony he could see the whole west side from the rich merchants’ manses at the top, through the outer defensive wall, the rugged market places, the slums, and all the way down to the beach, filled with white sand and blue-green water.
And all of it, even that beautiful water, was burning.
The mighty, ear-splitting roar cut through the sky once more. It was a sound of utter terror, but Seth was almost grateful to the beast as it drowned out the far worse sounds of his people screaming as they were cut down by the barbarian hordes that invaded less than twenty minutes ago. They’d seen the ships earlier, of course. Seth had rallied the whole city guard and commanded his people behind the wall, but they didn’t expect the barbarians to have a damned dragon.
The beast flew into view again over the keep; Seth ducked down behind the wall instinctively. It was massive and covered in black scales, which seemed to glitter in a deep purple when they caught the flickering light of the flames. He roared again, and an inferno sprung from his mouth, tearing a swath through the marketplace and shaking the whole island violently.
Seth ducked again, and ran inside. Two guards, dressed in the color of his house, flanked him immediately.
“My lord,” one said, trying to disguise the panic in his voice. “We are overrun.”
“Where’s my wife? My daughter?”
“They are under guard on the upper floor, my lord.”
“Good,” said Seth, if they were at least somewhat safe, he could at least focus on trying to find a way out. “What do we have? A boat? A safehouse?”
The guard began to answer, but he was cut off when the heavy wooden door of the hall burst open. A man walked in. Was it a man? He wore heavy armor, but it was unadorned and practical. He had a cloak over his head, red and black, the colors of the Targaryens. It looked slick and wet, but worse was that the cloak covered his face in a deep darkness. There were no features, no eyes, but Seth could feel them as the man turned to face him.
Seth drew his sword. His guards did as well, then they charged. “Run, my lord!” yelled one. The man in the cloak did not move. He did not even flinch. He just kept staring…
A barbarian stepped in the room, screaming at the top of his lungs. He was heavily muscled and scarred, with braided hair and a grey beard. His armor was covered with red and black warpaint and he brandished a heavy metal glove on his left hand and a large, cruel blade in his right. The blade effortlessly cut through Seth’s first guard, splattering blood onto the floor of the keep. The man in the cloak was staring straight through the melee, at Seth, and he titled his head ever so slightly, then he turned and walked, as calmly as an afternoon stroll towards the large wooden banquet table in the room.
Seth’s second guard swung at the barbarian, but the man caught the blade with the heavy glove and swung with his own. The guard crumpled and Seth dropped his sword in shock. The barbarian pulled a piece of cloth from his belt and began to clean his blade, with his old dark eyes locked on Seth.
The man in the cloak pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. He didn’t turn to look at Seth, he just sat there silent and dark, waiting. The terrified lord dipped to pick up his sword, but the barbarian cleared his throat loudly. Seth stopped instantly. The message was clear. Instead, he walked to the opposite end of the table and sat down in his usual chair – the man in the cloak had taken the chair meant for honored guests.
There was a long moment of silence. Then, a voice echoed out from under the cloak. “I am Alexander Targaryen,” it said. The voice was harsh and low and reminded Seth of a sword being dragged across stone. “You have something I want.”
Seth gathered all of his courage. “Call off your dragon first.”
“Afanc will have had his fill soon.”
Two more people entered the room… The first was a painfully thin man, dressed in a black trenchcoat and covered in little glass bottles. A grotesque mask, with a long beak-like nose and glowing red goggles, hid his face, but his hands were pale and covered in nasty burns. The second was the complete opposite – a blonde woman, stunning in almost every way and wearing an outfit that left none of her flawless figure to the imagination.
The barbarian nodded at the new additions, watched the woman walk for a moment, then walked toward Seth’s sword, picked it up and walked out, towards the stairs. Oh, gods, Seth thought. Not the stairs.
The man with the beak stood behind and to the left of Alexander. The woman stroked her hand on Alexander’s shoulders, then walked behind Seth and stroked his too. Alexander didn’t move at all, but Seth flinched at her gentle touch. She sat on the table right next to him and smiled sweetly. She crossed her legs slowly, her every move oozed sensuality. And what was that smell on her perfume that filled his nose? It was intoxicating.
Alexander spoke again, making Seth flinch. He’d been so concentrated on the damn woman. “Octavian here tells me you possess a charcinder mine.”
“What?” Seth complained. “You burned this whole island for a mine?”
The man in the beak, Octavian, spoke. His voice sounded far away, trapped behind his mask. “Charcinder is a key ingredient in wildfire. We need it.”
The woman leaned closer to Seth and ran her gentle fingers along his chin. “Lots of it,” she whispered.
“OK. Fine,” Seth said desperately. “Call off the dragon and we’ll discuss terms.”
“No,” said Alexander, his voice steel.
“You don’t expect me to just let you murder everyone on this island!”
“Everyone on this island is already dead,” Alexander said, and then let the silence hang for a moment. “And if they are not, they will be entertainment for my warriors or food for Afanc. I am going to erase this island and its only legacy will be the wildfire with which I burn its neighbors to ashes.”
Seth’s eyes darted back and forth in terror. He looked at the woman in a silent plea for help, but she smiled sweetly and blew him a kiss. How could she be OK with this? How they just sit here and let him say these things?
A scream echoed from upstairs. Seth got up in panic, but the woman jumped off the table, moved around behind him, and put her hands on his shoulders. “Don’t run now, sweetie. The fun’s about to start.”
The barbarian walked down the stairs, a big smile on his withered face. He had a screaming young girl by the hair. An older woman was running behind him, pulling on his arms uselessly and begging him to stop.
Seth shook in panic and hatred at the scene. Octavian turned to look and rubbed his hands as if his wife and daughter were a meal. The woman giggled in his ear. Alexander did nothing. Alexander just stared at him from behind that hood of pure, unyielding black.
“Thaddeus.” Alexander’s voice was crisp and clear even with the noisy screams. “Rape the daughter,” his gaze remained fixed on Seth, “with her father’s sword.”
“No!” screamed Seth. The barbarian, Thaddeus, punched Seth’s wife with his metal glove and she crumpled to the ground. The young girl screamed and screamed as Thaddeus pulled Seth’s sword, the one he’d inherited from his forefathers, from his belt.
Alexander just sat and stared.
“No! Please!” Seth begged. “Please! I’ll take you to the mine! Please! Just stop! Stop!”
There was a long moment, but finally Alexander raised his hand and Thaddeus stopped before the blade touched the girl. Seth noticed the hands on Alexander’s armor; the final joints on each of his fingers weren’t made of metal, but of thick, dark bone. Alexander lowered his hand and slowly stood, his gaze fixed on Seth. “Lead the way. Arianna, tie them up.”
The woman, Arianna, leaned down. Seth felt her breath in his ears. “Don’t worry, sweetie,” she said. “I’m good with knots.” Seth got out of his seat and looked her straight in the face. She had a sickeningly sweet smile, but he finally saw that twisted glee in her eyes. Gods, she was as bad as the rest of them.
He turned on his heel and walked out of the room. Alexander and Octavian followed him out. He spared a brief look at his sobbing daughter and his beloved wife; she was stirring now. She was going to be OK.
The mine was not far. The closest entrance was through their storage room in the keep gardens. Seth led his two assailants down through his destroyed gardens; he could hear the distant screams of his people and the roaring of the savages that murdered them. Above him, the dragon, Alexander called him Afanc, swept across the sky.
The storage chambers and topmost entrance were a stone’s throw away from the keep, but on the other side from where they were. The top of the hill was where the most charcinder deposits were. It was an old stone house, circular with a big heavy metal door. The key, which he kept on his belt, was tiny, but it felt like a ton of bricks now. He fumbled with the lock, and then swung open the door, revealing the stairs down into the mine itself, surrounded by shelves containing small vials of charcinder, which looked like silver dust.
“Stop,” ordered Alexander. Seth turned around to see Thaddeus and Arianna approaching from the keep. Octavian walked into the shack, grabbed a vial of the dust, then began mixing it with other vials he kept on his person. His burned hands worked quickly and dexterously. His vials began to give off a thick green smoke as Arianna came from behind and bound his hand with a thick, greasy rope behind his back.
“Does it work?” asked Alexander.
Octavian sniffed his mixture, then recoiled. “The smell’s right. Yeah, I think so,” he said quickly, handing the voice to Alexander.
Alexander held the vial for a moment, turned his absent face to Seth, then tossed the vial hard into the keep. Seth let loose a scream before a massive green explosion ripped through his home. He attempted to run towards it, but Thaddeus grabbed him and held him fast. Octavian squealed like an excited schoolboy.
“Another,” demanded Alexander. Octavian quickly complied and Alexander threw another smoking green vial into the keep. Another explosion tore into the sky. Afanc let out a roar in response, as if to remind the wildfire that he was the greater force.
Alexander turned to Seth. The mask of darkness was inches away, but there was no sign of the man’s true face… Only endless black.
“You’re a monster,” Seth cried, tears running down his face.
“Your wife and daughter were on the other side of the keep,” came Alexander’s echoing voice from the black. “They might still be alive.” The man pulled a knife from his belt and severed the rope that bound him. “Go save them.”
Seth stared at him incredulously, scared and alone.
“Save them,” he said again more forcefully.
Seth ran up towards his keep, towards his family, filled with that one final, desperate shred of hope. He risked a quick look back. The barbarian was looking at him and laughing. The man with the beak was rapidly mixing another jar of wildfire. The stunning blonde woman was hanging off Alexander, who was staring, just staring, right at him.
He damned every last one of them and cursed them in the name of every god he knew. He turned again and ran past the sweltering green flames, through the heavy wooden door. He called his family’s names, loudly, desperately.
Then, he saw them, splattered on the banquet table, still, with their final looks of terror frozen on their faces as the green flames crept towards them. Seth’s family blade lied on the table next to them, covered in their blood.
He fell to his knees and managed a scream before the third green explosion engulfed him and everything he loved.