Soldiers’ muddied boots splashed across the cobbled road as they hurried to join the commotion in the town. Their battle cries were lost amongst the sounds of war thundering around them. Women and children scurried in every direction; their screams and cries drew goose bumps in the night. Deep voices barked orders only to be drowned in frantic desperation. Swords were drawn from their sheaths; their shwings threatened in unison. Their blades reflected the orange glow of a city in ruins.
Strikes of lightning split the sky and plummeted towards the land amongst crashes of thunder. The road erupted suddenly, throwing soldiers and civilians back. Debris flew in every direction, killing and injuring many in its path. Blood seeped between the cracks in the stone, it's sharp scent scarring the air as a reminder for the days ahead of the destruction that took place.
A woman stood in the center of the town, watching as the dust from the explosion lifted. Her golden eyes pierced the darkness and struck fear in the hearts of soldiers and citizens. Her dark hair succumbed to the darkness of night. Stray strands of wet hair blew across her pale face. Her black dress clung to her small body and wrapped around her legs with the wind. She raised her arms above her, palms up towards the angry sky; a ball of fire grew from nothing between her palms. The flames flickered and danced, anxiously waiting. Her arms trembled as the ball grew rapidly, out of her control before exploding above her. The force threw her backwards, but she was quick to catch herself, and even quicker to continue her attack. She threw her arms in the air once more, thunder rumbling above, and she summoned the fire within her once more.
The soldiers hesitated in their pursuit, their frightened eyes fixed on the magic she summoned. She took advantage of their moment of fear and hurled the fireball at her opponents, causing them to scatter in all directions. Those who were two slow found themselves face to face with their death as the ball exploded against the cobblestone road. Bodies lay motionless around the city, burned and scarred and barely recognizable. Women and children cried out to their husbands, brothers, and sons before scurrying off to find safety.
The woman let another fireball loose and it exploded once more on the ground. Ash and debris flew into the homes and shops. Their wooden frames split and shattered; their old roofs erupted into flames, engulfing the buildings within seconds. Screams could be heard from inside and bodies emerged through the black smoke, coughing and choking and reaching for one another.
Soldiers rushed towards her with once more with their swords in hand; their battle cries rose above the frantic city. The women attempted to summon another spell between her palms, but failed. She threw her arms in the air above her. When nothing happened, she hurled her arms forward. Her eyes scanned the oncoming soldiers in panic, knowing she had grown too weak to continue the fight. She closed her eyes; a flash of light struck the town, temporarily blinding those within its walls. The soldiers threw their arms over their faces to shield their eyes until the light subsided. When their world dimmed, they peaked between their arms to see that the woman with fire had vanished.
The soldiers exchanged confused glances with each other before turning to their crumbling town. Feeling defeated, they returned their swords to their sheaths and shouted orders to one another. They hurried to the bodies of their comrades, checking for the pulses of any survivors. They comforted the citizens, aiding them in their search for lost loved ones, and taking away the bodies of those who were lost. They stood together in huddled groups, their heads bowed and their hands on each other's shoulders in an attempt to comfort one another.
The rain continued to fall, plastering their hair to their faces. Some soldiers came together, mounting their horses to report to their king, while others stayed behind, protecting what was left of the little town. The soldiers pushed their horses forward, their hooves splashing in the puddles along the cobblestone road as they headed out of the city and to the castle. The soldiers in the city kept solemn watch through the night, praying that the witch would not return.
The rising sun peaked over the distant mountain range, their purple summits just shadows against a yellow morning sky. A valley lush with life stretched away from the mountains, sparkling with the glitter of morning dew, and disappeared into a vast forest. Leaves of browns and greens tickled the waking sky. An old, decaying castle sat quietly just outside of the forest, under the looming shadows of the mountains. Black clouds stretched towards the mountain range, bringing with them the threat of a storm. Distant lightning flashed and cut through the sky.
Scarletta stood over a beaten wooden table inside her castle, carefully mixing colorful liquids in glasses. The glasses bubbled as each liquid was married to another. Red, green, and black smoke billowed over each glass, filling the room with a scentless fog. She filled a needle with the concoction from one of the glasses and walked to the far corner of the room where a dark shadow huddled. Golden eyes split the shadow and scanned the room in fright. Scarletta knelt on the ground beside the young woman and inserted the needle into her arm. The golden eyes winced slightly, but otherwise, were still. When the needle was empty, Scarletta rose and returned to the table to carefully rearrange the glasses.
The young woman in the corner stood and stepped into the yellow light that streamed through the dirtied window behind her. She was young; her dark hair framed her pale face and nearly blended in with her dark dress. Her dress made her look remarkably plain, but her facial features were perfection, as if they were carefully sculpted by patient hands over many years. Not an imperfection marked her.
“Calliope.” Scarletta turned to the young woman, her curly red hair twisting around her and caressing her frame. “You’re back to your normal self. Now, no more mishaps; I can’t keep saving your pathetic ass.” Scarletta turned back to the table and continued to mix liquids. “Go to Librona – that's where King Sloan is – and finish what we started. Leave the king for me. Spare your power and strength. Don’t let me down.”
Calliope nodded and without a word, she turned and let herself out of the dim room. The woman approached the nearby window and smiled as she gazed at the distant town, still heavy with smoke from the attack. Calliope was much stronger than her other witches; her results showed in the ruins. Soon, the rest of the kingdom would look the way Talmond did. Finally, after all these years, she would have the revenge she waited for. Libron would pay for what they did to her. The door behind her opened, bringing Scarletta out of her thoughts.
“After all these years, Mallius,” Scarletta said, not turning to welcome her visitor. “After all these wasted witches. It's finally happening. I will have my revenge on that kingdom.” She turned to the creature and smiled. Mallius returned her grin, his teeth rotted and stained, yet sharp and deadly. His gargoyle form was hunched in the doorway.
“It's only a matter of time before Calliope finishes them off,” Mallius said. His voice was deep and harsh; angry, despite his devilish grin.
“The spell is almost perfect,” Scarletta said, returning to the table. Among the bottled potions lay her notes, scattered and worn. “She's just the witch I need to complete this. The kingdom won't stand a chance. Pity to see her sacrificed, though. She truly is the best of my creations.”
“Her death will be worth it,” Mallius said. “The kingdom will be yours. You won't need tools like her.”
“This is true. She is merely a pawn in this war. And Libron is only the beginning. I will have my revenge on what this world has done.”
Mallius dug his claws into the wooden floor boards; his black, leathery wings stretched out above him.
“Patience, Mallius,” Scarletta said, anticipating his excitement. She turned back to the window, imagining a barren and burnt kingdom, all finally hers. “Once Calliope returns, we will have our fun.”
Libron's soldiers traveled towards it's capital, Librona, where King Sloan's castle stood tall. They galloped their horses through the waking and unaware city and up the hill into the castle courtyard. The head soldier, one of King Sloan's knights, dismounted his horse and bowed to his king who had just come down the castle steps.
“There has been an attack on Talmond,” the knight explained to his king. “One of Scarletta's witches.”
King Sloan cursed under his breath. “What are the damages?”
“The city is practically in ruins,” the knight said. “Homes and shops destroyed. We lost men and citizens.”
“Where's the witch?”
“She disappeared. My men searched the city for her, but she was no where to be seen. Just vanished before our eyes. She grows weak, though.”
King Sloan sighed. “That means nothing. I know Scarletta. She'll come back with something stronger.”
“What will you have us do, my lord?”
“Find that witch. If she is weak, we may have a chance to destroy her. That will put a thorn in Scarletta's plans for now.”
The knight bowed to his king and mounted his horse once more. He shouted to his troops, ordering them to begin their search through the kingdom of Libron to find the witch. The knight and his soldiers took off through the dark city once more and towards the distant forest that marked Libron's boundaries.
King Sloan stood on the steps of his castle, gazing over the waking city. They were struggling in this war against Scarletta without their ally, ever since they pulled out of the war. King Sloan never doubted King Rowan's decision, but they were crumbling under Scarletta, and the kingdom of Asmar would surely be next.
He absentmindedly stroked his beard in thought, his eyes fixed on the horizon. He grew hopeless as each day passed. He didn't know how long his kingdom would last. The odds were not in his favor. His stomach churned at the thought. He thought of his wife and children. He never thought his children would have to grow up in a doomed kingdom. He had to keep them safe. Perhaps King Rowan would let them stay in the kingdom while the war aged on in Libron. He didn't want them to be there when the kingdom fell. He needed them to be safe.
He headed inside the castle as the sun came out from hiding beyond the horizon. There was much to be done in the following weeks. Regardless of their situation, he had a kingdom to run, to fight for. He would fight to the very end for his kingdom, but not blindly. He needed a plan. He needed to ensure his family's safety in Asmar and he needed to prepare his army for their final battle.
He stood alone in the empty throne room. He gazed up at the banners that hung above the red, velvet throne. Images of his father played through his mind. He recalled sitting in that very throne as a child, pretending to be the king. He remembered his father's teachings.
“Sloan, a king must be fair and just,” his father had said to him. “Sometimes the solution isn't clear. Sometimes things aren't black and white. The world is grey, Sloan. It is your job, as the future king, to bring the color into the world. Do not be quick to judge those who have made mistakes.”
Try as he might, he could not see the color in the world. He tried to be a fair king. Scarletta needed to be brought down, but with each passing day, that seemed less and less possible. There was no solution here. He was the king of a dying kingdom. He couldn't bare the thought of being Libron's final king, but he didn't know what else he could do. It was too late for the kingdom. It was the end of an era.
King Sloan turned away from the empty throne. It no longer belonged to him. It would remain empty to rot along with the rest of the kingdom until the kingdom of Libron was long forgotten.