HTTYD - How to Burn a Witch Part 1/15

And this is the first official start of the story.

This chapter was inspired by the events of HTTYD Book 5, in the beginning with the reindeer herding and the Exterminator dragons that appeared. I wanted to incorperate this scene because it was the best scene that worked with the story and the events it will lead to.

Be warned in advance that there are some characters from the movie, books, and a few OCs, but only children and a few elders mostly. None of them, besides one, is majorly important.

I hope everyone enjoys this story, as it was a lot of fun to plan out and write!


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Once upon a time…

There was a sorcerer…

…and there was a dragon.

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CHAPTER ONE: HOW TO START A FIRE

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Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third never really forgot the day he came face-to-face with Lucien Starkweather. How could he? It was the single most terrifying experience of his life, even more so than his showdown with the Red Death that took his lower left leg.

But let us start at the beginning.

It all started during a heat wave in the middle of his twenty-second year of life, his fourth year as Chief of the Hooligans, which was surprising since the Viking Territories, especially the Isle of Berk, were normally rather cool. But it had been growing hot over the past few days, and as the temperatures rose, Hiccup’s grandfather Old Wrinkly had been babbling on about how the unexpected warmth was a terrible omen of bad things to come, and a new kind of horror had awoken somewhere beyond the Isles and would descend upon them all in a torrent of agony and terror…

But Hiccup had learned over the years that his grandfather liked to spin odd tales to keep the Hooligans on their toes. Nothing terrible had occured in Berk since Hiccup and his faithful Night Fury Toothless had slain the Red Death a little less than a decade ago.

On this particular day, the sun was beating down relentlessly on the usually frost-bitten Isle of Berk as if it had lost its way and thought it was somewhere near fire.

There was not a cloud in sight.

Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third—only son of the former-Chief Stoick the Vast, Chief of the Hooligans, and slayer of the Red Death—was leading a training program for the young Vikings in the Wild Zone surrounding his village.

His second-in-command and chief advisor (besides his wife, of course), Snotlout Jorgenson, had suggested that on this particularly still, stuffy summer’s day, it would be an excellent idea to train the young warriors-to-be how to herd reindeer while riding on a dragon’s back. It’s pretty simple, Hic, Snotlout had said earlier that very morning. There aren’t many dragons too small to ride. Every Viking has to learn eventually. Why not sooner rather than later?

While sometimes they didn’t agree with each other, Hiccup couldn’t argue with him this time.

The little children, however, didn’t agree with him. It was hot and humid, and all they wanted to do was swim in the cold ocean and cool off. But Snotlout had not asked the childrens’ opinions on the matter. And Snotout Jorgenson, second-in-command to the Chief of the Hooligans and only son of Spitelout Jorgenson, was a six-foot-tall axe-wielding lunatic with a Monstrous Nightmare who was not the kind of person you argued with if you were younger than he was (unless you were Hiccup, that is).

So there they all were: all ten pupils who would be warriors in three years’ time, standing in a hot, ragged line, halfway through the Wild Zone’s tallest hill, swatting off the flies that were gathering at their sides and flittering around their heads.

Hiccup stood in front of the line of children—six boys and four girls—watching them with his hauntingly Night-Fury-green eyes. There was Gastank, the youngest member of the group. He went by the name of Gazzy or Gas to his friends, and the name wasn’t improper. The kid’s bowels could blow with the best of them. He bore a strong resemblance to Tuffnut though they weren’t related. There was Cactus, the tom-boy of the group. There was her brother, Swampwater, commonly known as Swamp. Hiccup knew each of them by name, and he knew each of their parents. And he knew what troublemakers the ten of them could be when they were together. So he thanked Odin above that the sun and the heat was preventing them from enacting those trickster behaviors he was certain he could blame Loki for later.

There they all were—this collection of pre-teen Vikings—and Snotlout was shouting at them in his usually cheery fashion.

"Right," yelled Snotlout, the sweat pouring down his flame-red face and into the thick stubble of his beard. "I presume you all have brought your dragons with you today."

"I didn’t know you knew words that long, cousin," Hiccup said to himself.

Snotlout shot him a playful glare.

They had all brought their dragons. Most of the dragons were looking as cross at being called out for this training as their masters were. The dragons panted heavily with their forked tongues hanging out, and their tails swished back and forth to keep off the flies and the buzzing insects.

Snotlout’s Monstrous Nightmare, Fireworm, was settled dangerously behind her master, her head resting between his spread feet.

All the other dragons, large as they were, were lounging behind their masters, most of them looking as if they really wanted to be somewhere else.

Hiccup’s faithful dragon and best friend, Toothless, was by far the most intimidating: a slick, tar-black Night Fury with luminous green eyes, larger than any horse. He was also the only dragon showing the same amount of enthusiasm for the mid-summer training session as Snotlout was. He was fidgeting in and out of Hiccup’s personal-space bubble, weaving in circles around his master’s body like a circling wolf. Then he would perch behind Hiccup in a crouching position, spreading his wide black wings and chirping in short, exciteable bursts before scurrying back down in front of Hiccup’s legs again. His face seemed to be saying, Are we starting yet? Are we starting? When is this going to start?

"Calm down, Toothless," Hiccup scolded gently. "We just got here."

"Okay, children, listen up!" Snotlout bellowed. "Herding reindeer is a lot like herding sheep, only much more dangerous."

Hiccup punched him on the shoulder and hissed, “Don’t tell them that.”

Snotlout gasped in mock surprise. “You want me to lie to the youth of our village? For shame, Hiccup! And I thought you were supposed to be the Chief. The Chief is supposed to do whatever possible to protect his village, and keeping the truth from them will not protect them. How can you expect them to be ready for danger if we convince them there is no danger?”

"Thank you, Snotlout," Hiccup said sarcastically.

Snotlout grinned at him and returned his attention to the children. “You will use your dragons to round up any stray reindeer that try to break away from the group we are herding. It’s a good chance to put into practice all that you’ve learned in your other lessons.”

"So this is a test,” sneered Gastank.

"But the main point of the herding," continued Snotlout, "will be to herd them at first with your dragons."

Toothless perked up and snuffled at Hiccup. His eyes flashed, and he ran his massive tongue over his scaly lips. He bumped his head against Hiccup’s prosthetic leg—almost throwing him off balance, almost—and licked his jaws again. His expression seemed to be asking: Can I eat the reindeer when we catch them?

"No, Toothless, you can’t eat them," said Hiccup. "And we’re not going to chase them, either." He took this chance to address not only his Night Fury but the children, too. "We will be gently guiding them in the right direction."

Toothless slumped, disappointed.

"None of you have really ridden your dragons before," Hiccup said to the children, "and it might be a bit difficult at first. However, if you focus and gently command your dragon, it will obey you and keep you from getting hurt. For these purposes today, we will not be flying. We’re going to stay on the ground."

"Oh, Chief," Cactus groaned. "I thought we were going to fly today."

"First you have to learn to ride," Hiccup said. "And then you can learn to fly. You fall off a flying dragon, Cactus, and you end up a very flat Viking. Which might be a little difficult for me to explain to your parents."

Toothless blinked at Hiccup as if to say, Can I eat a small one?

"No," Hiccup answered sharply.

"So, on our dragons, we will approach the reindeer quietly—no farting, Gazzy—and we will carefully surround the herd and see whether we can lead them back to the village." Snotlout waved his hands to the dragons settled behind their masters. "Oh, get up the lot of you! You’re supposed to be terrifying, for Odin’s sake!"

As the dragons got to their feet and tried to stand erect behind their masters, Hiccup turned and looked behind them.

Between one instant and the next, Hiccup realized that something might’ve been very, very wrong. The air reeked of smoke. The trees where the dragons were standing were blasted and twisted and the color of Toothless’s wings. All around the trees were scorch marks. And while Snotlout continued to instruct the children, Hiccup inched closer to investigate. He found that the entire hillside behind them had been burnt to ashes and turned into a sooty desert. Where the heather once grew and swayed in the wind, now there was only ashy stubble, scarred across with snow-white claw-shaped marks, out across the fields and the whole of the slope.

Only one thing could do that to a hillside in such a controlled, terrible burst.

Dragon fire.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Hiccup stumbled back, his metal leg sinking into the charred ground. “Oh god, oh gods,” he muttered to himself. “What in the nine worlds could’ve done that?”

The dragons, ever since Hiccup and the Hooligans had befriended them, were very careful about how they used their fire. They used it to fight and catch prey, but they would never dream of setting fire to an entire landscape. And why would they? The land gave them water, food, and a place to sleep.

So Hiccup deduced that a rogue dragon must’ve come through and done it.

He knelt down—wincing slightly when his prosthetic shifted into the ashes—and brushed his finger over the remains of a charred tree. The ash appeared old, the damage nearly ancient. Yet why hadn’t he noticed it until now?

"Snotlout," he called over his shoulder. "I think you should come and have a look at this."

"What is it?" Snotlout came to look at the destruction, hands on his hips. "Whoa, who flame-broiled the field?"

"I don’t know. I think it was a dragon."

"A dragon? That’s crazy! There hasn’t been a single dragon issue since you killed that stupid Death dragon six years ago. This must’ve been caused by a summer storm. Maybe Thor was tossing lightning in the air a few days ago."

"There hasn’t been a storm in months," Hiccup pointed out. "And look—there’s a greenish tint to the ash. Definitely a dragon fire."

"Well, we can’t let the kids in on it," Snotlout said.

"What was it you said about not hiding anything from them?"

"That was before. This is serious. Whatever did this is much more dangerous than a few reindeer. We’ll talk to your dad and the rest of the Elders when we get back to the village. For now, let’s just focus on getting the kids to round up reindeer." He turned back to the children and glared. "HEY! Cactus, Swamp—get back in the line! I didn’t give you permission to roll in the mud!"

Cactus and her brother slunk back into line, dripping with wet clay.

Snotlout turned and placed his hand on his cousin’s shoulder. “No dragon on earth would think of attacking us, Hic. We’ve got the strongest foothold in the Viking territories, and you’re the one who got the dragons to work together with us. We’re not slaying them anymore. So what grudge could they possibly have against us?”

"Revenge for all those we’ve slain in the past?" Hiccup suggested.

"Water under the bridge—they would’ve attacked by now if that were the case. They haven’t attacked for over six years. They won’t do it now."

Hiccup wasn’t really reassured by his cousin’s logic, but he figured that—for the childrens’ sake—he could keep himself calm until they returned to the village. Rogue dragons were not a topic of discussion with the little ones, especially when they’d grown up knowing mostly of kind dragons.

"Each of you mount your dragons," Hiccup commanded.

"On the double!" Snotlout added.

Cactus scrambled onto her Gronkle, which was the runt of a small litter named Globble. Snotlout hopped onto the back of his Monstrous Nightmare, who rose steadily and shifted to accompany his added weight since he first started riding her. Swampwater bounced onto the back of a flame-red Nadder, and Hiccup found himself missing his wife and her crazy coaching skills. Maybe I should’ve brought her instead of Snotlout, he thought with a small laugh.

The other children climbed onto their own respective riding dragons—a colorful assortment of Zipplebacks, Nadders, and Gronkles—and Hiccup quickly mounted Toothless. It was a bit difficult, what with his Night Fury bouncing excitedly beneath him. He barely hooked his prosthetic in its foothold before Toothless lurched forward into a playful crouch.

As the son of the former Chief, and current Chief himself, Hiccup could’ve had any dragon he desired. He could’ve had the Monstrous Nightmare that Snotlout was proudly sitting on right now—a muscular, superb creature, who was clearly one of the most feared and respected dragons in the whole village.

But there was no way he could give up Toothless.

They’d done everything together since they day they met. They’d gone through so much. Toothless was his best friend and his dragon. Totally in sync, they protected each other. And Hiccup could see, at times when Snotlout thought no one was watching, how much he actually adored Fireworm. Hiccup could see the genuine affection in the way Snotlout pet her nose, fed her treats, and he could see the way he’d whisper things like “I’m sorry I yelled—it’s for appearances and stuff” whenever he’d finish giving a lesson that would involve him screaming at Fireworm to “get off her lazy ass and actually do something”.

To take her away from Snotlout would be the same as taking Toothless from Hiccup—impossible and unacceptable.

Hiccup was still a little worried about the scorched field, but there was no point in worrying about it now. So he stroked Toothless behind the ear the way he liked, delighting in the pleased purr his Night Fury mewled out.

"I’ll be leading the way," Snotlout called. "Along with our Chief, of course," he added as an after thought, remembering his place.

"It’s fine, Snotlout," Hiccup called back. "I’ll take up the rear and make sure the kids don’t stray."

"Good plan. Thanks, Chief." He reached down and stroked Fireworm lovingly on her snout. Her big golden eyes blinked back at him, saying: You owe me so much fish after this, Mr. “I know, I know, I’ll get you the biggest fish I can find when we get back to the village, okay girl?” Then he looked back at the group of mounted children and nodded. “Hi-yah!” he yelled, digging his heels into Fireworm’s sides to get her moving.

And the herding party on dragonback set off across the scorched wreckage of the field, with Snotlout shouting enthusiastically at the front, and everyone else following him at a more leisurely pace.

Oddly, Toothless didn’t try to bound to the front of the line in excitement.

Much to Hiccup’s surprise, he was shivering all over and kept glancing dangerously at the charred ground. Hiccup hated the fact that he couldn’t speak Toothless’s language and ask what was wrong. The dragons seemed to understand the humans, but the humans couldn’t speak Dragonese—as they’d dubbed the growling, grunting, roaring, hissing language.

"It’s all right, Toothless," Hiccup said soothingly, his heart sinking. "What’s scaring you?"

Toothless snorted and slapped his prosthetic leg with his ear. His grunt seemed to say: I’m not scared.

But Hiccup was wise enough to know that—after years of keeping Toothless by his side, after all they’d gone through together—whenever Toothless started shivering, whatever was to come next was to be feared and handled accordingly, before things got out of hand.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

An hour or so later, Snotlout, leading Fireworm ahead of the others, spotted a herd of reindeer, nibbling on a patch heather that wasn’t charred in a field that wasn’t destroyed.

He immediately circled back to the straggling line of children on their dragons. “Shh, everyone, I’ve spotted the reindeer,” he said softly. “Now, we have to stay very relaxed and orderly. We don’t want to alarm them and split the herd apart. Keep your dragons calm. Especially you, Gazzy—I don’t want a repeat of the last time we tried herding animals.”

"No, sir," Gastank mumbled.

Hiccup smiled. He remembered that day. Gastank’s tiny Zippleback had gotten a little too excited during their sheep-herding lesson and ended up chasing the sheep into the ocean. It’d taken forever to pull them all out and dry them off.

Toothless shuffled underneath Hiccup’s legs and turned his head, looking deeply into Hiccup’s eyes.

Hiccup blinked and shook his head. Dragons’ eyes were hypnotic, and he was already starting to feel dizzy from the heat. “Everything all right, bud? You’re not acting like yourself.” He rubbed Toothless’s ear affectionately to calm him down. But still, he knew something wasn’t right. Toothless had never tried to hypnotize him like that before.

Toothless craned his neck and licked Hiccup on the nose with his forked tongue.

Hiccup took a firm hold on his harness nonetheless.

The children slowed to a trot. The reindeer didn’t seem to notice them as they lurked in the bushes behind.

Toothless came to a sudden halt, nails gouging long groves in the dirt. He snuck a peak over his shoulder at the reindeer, his ears perking up. “Toothless?” Hiccup murmured, bending down. Toothless let a weak purr through his lips and turned his face away from Hiccup’s, eyes locked menacingly on the bushes beyond the reindeer.

"That’s it, kids," said Snotlout delightedly. "You’re doing a really good job now…they haven’t startled at all. We just have to keep riding calmly and silently for a little while longer, and—"

"RRRRRAAAAAAAAAHHHH!" bellowed Toothless, jerking back and hurling himself at the herd, roaring and howling like a beast.

"Oh, for Thor’s sake!" Hiccup yelled.

"Hiccup, what in Hel is going on?" screeched Snotlout in a voice that was both confused and a little creeped out.

"I-I don’t know!" Hiccup shouted back over his bouncing shoulders—grabbing hold of Toothless’s harness as best he could with his body bouncing out of control—and he dug his nails into the soft skin in between the scales. "Toothless, STOP!" He dug his nails in deeper, hating that it might start hurting his dear friend, in an attempt to stop the charge.

Toothless, if he felt the painful sting of Hiccup’s nails in his flesh, didn’t react to it. He kept snarling and bounding through the field.

Hiccup noticing, surprisingly, that the reindeer had started to run.

Snotlout pressed Fireworm to speed up. “Odin’s beard,” he cursed to himself. “What the Hel is going on?”

As Snotlout raced faster, so did the children on dragonback. And within no time, all calmness had left the Viking children. They were a wild, primeval sight: ten children on ten dragons galloping across the fields, with Snotlout Jorgenson bellowing like a maniac and leading them on the back of his Monstrous Nightmare, and before him, Hiccup being thrown wildly about like a cheap rag toy by his once-faithful Night Fury.

"To the left, Hic—keep to the LEFT!" Snotlout roared as Toothless bolted swiftly to the right, near the bushes.

"Halt! Stop! Wait!" Hiccup screeched as Toothless lowered like a stalkling lion and growled ferociously at whatever lay in the bushes.

Then, as suddenly as it began, it ended. Toothless jerked to a halt so fast, Hiccup’s riding-harness jerked tight and he was thrown from Toothless’s back. He curled up to protect his head as he hit the soft field and rolled like a stone. His prosthetic leg jerked painfully from its holster and coiled beneath him, the metal biting into his skin. Hiccup bit his lip against the scream so hard he tasted blood. He rolled in the dirt for what felt like seconds, then landed hard on a stone. Something wet slicked down his neck, and he wondered, sluggishly, if he was bleeding.

Toothless snarled once at the bushes, then seemed to realize that Hiccup wasn’t screaming at him to stop. He turned and blinked curiously, and then spotted Hiccup on the ground.

Through half-lidded, dazed eyes, Hiccup saw Toothless’s expression contort into what he imagined was terror. His Night Fury seemed to regain himself and bound over to him. Toothless curled up next to him and licked his cheek comfortingly, his action that kept on saying, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

"It’s all right, boy," Hiccup murmured, using Toothless’s head to help him sit up.

"Chief!" Snotlout brought Fireworm to a stop next to Toothless. The Nightmare snorted at Toothless, agitated. The Night Fury growled back, then stuck his tail between his legs in shame. Snotlout jumped from Fireworm’s back and knelt to help Hiccup stand. "Are you okay?"

"I’m fine," Hiccup said.

"Are you sure, Chief?" Cactus asked.

"Yeah. Nothing to worry about." Hiccup smiled at them to show he was all right.

Snotlout gave Toothless a strange look that said: What was that all about? Then he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, let’s hope it doesn’t happen again. Maybe just nerves. All right, kids. Looks like we have to start over again. From the beginning.”

Hiccup knew the children weren’t pleased, but they didn’t say anything. He imagined they were still as creeped about by Toothless’s rampage as he was.

That was the start of an exhausting couple of hours.

Toothless, for the most part, was very calm now. He nudged Hiccup’s leg now and again, licked his nose or cheek occasionally, and purred solemnly. Hiccup would pet him and tell him it was all right, and that he didn’t have to apologize. Yet the Night Fury still glared at the bushes now and again, his gaze sometimes shifting to things in the distance. At times like this, Hiccup really wished he could speak to dragons.

As the day wore on, however, the reindeer seemed to be reforming into larger groups and the children seemed to be getting the hang of working together with the dragons to guide the reindeer in the right direction. They were riding and herding much more expertly, and they were smiling proudly.

Cactus hadn’t fallen off her Gronkle in almost an hour. At they had just managed to get control of a larger group of about sixteen or so reindeer, and were herding them down the mountain to the shore in a professional matter.

Swampwater, Gastank, and a tough girl named Mutton were driving the herd from the back, calling and whooping and clapping to get the reindeer to move forward. And the other children had split up and were riding on the right and left flanks in semi-circles so they could push the reindeer group where they wanted them to go.

Snotlout whistled to Fireworm as a big stag made a break away from the group. Fireworm whirled her head back, her eyes sputtering and her jaws coiling with warning smoke. The stag fell back in with the rest of the crowd.

This was the life. All the children looked as if they wished their fathers and mothers could see them now.

Hiccup rode along, nice and easy, behind the group, watching for run away reindeer. Toothless hadn’t acted up the whole time, and he even started to relax.

The reindeer poured down the mountain in a gleaming brown column, moving at a nice, even pace. They cleared a small, dried-up stream, and bounded downwards, into the woods, moving evenly, calm and very relaxed.

Toothless suddenly came to a halt and snarled again, louder than he had the first time. He reared up and roared just as the woods in front of Snotlout burst into flames.

The reindeer bellowed in alarm and terror, and in a flurry of flaring nostrils, hooves, and orns, they swerved past the fire and down the mountain.

The Vikings weren’t as lucky.

The flames had already reached a whopping ten feet tall when they arrived.

"Quick!" Hiccup commanded. "Down to the shore! Run around the flames and go to the shore!"

But it was already much too late for that. In front of Hiccup’s eyes, the line of flames swooped across the entire landscape, moving faster than any man or dragon could possibly run. And then Hiccup saw the truly terrifying thing he’d been afraid of all this time. Every single hair on the back of his neck stood on end, like the spines of a sea urchin. His hand inched toward the sword strapped to his waist. His body tensed as Toothless crouched low and snarled again.

There was something dark shooting through the trees that was the source of the flames. Hiccup caught a brief glimpse of them as they passed. Something like dark, winged panthers, slithering in and out of the flames around them.

"Exterminators," he said.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Shit," Snotlout muttered, eyes darting around.

Only he and Hiccup were experienced enough to fly their dragons over the fire and out of danger. But there was no question of them abandoning their students, who had never ridden dragons before, let alone fly them. They were trying, though—each dragon bolting around, trying to find an area where the flames were low enough to jump through without getting their humans too badly burnt.

As soon as the flames curled into a complete circle around them, everyone drew their swords from their scabbards. None of them were stupid enough not to know they were under attack.

The dragons were not terrified of the fire, for dragons were immune to the flames—especially the Nightmare. What they didn’t like was whatever prowled in the fire around them. This is what sent them all staggering backwards, snarling and spitting like cats. The children dismounted their dragons, for they knew that if they remained on their backs, they risked being plunged into the inferno if their dragons tried to flee. As hardened as they were, some dragons were only loyal to a point for people they hadn’t formed a close bond with.

And indeed, the instant the children got off, the dragons fled upward, making Hiccup’s heart sink even lower, because whatever could cause ten dragons to flee couldn’t be good.

Only Fireworm and Toothless remained.

Years of fighting and flying and working alongside the adults had made the two dragons absolutely loyal, and they stayed at their masters’ sides, hypnotic eyes flashing left and right, watching the moves of the black shapes in the fires surrounding the twelve Vikings.

They peered through the flames, up into the smoke-filled skies, waiting, waiting for the first strike.

It didn’t take long, in the end.

There was a piercing scream of terror from behind them.

Snotlout and Hiccup whipped around just in time to see a reindeer fall down dead on the spot, killed by what looked like a massive sword-cut to the throat.

"What was that?” Swampwater said, quivering. “I think I saw something. Something black—a dragon, maybe?—came shooting out of the flames, killed the reindeer, and sprang back out of the circle…”

Silence again, and the children were rigid with tension, peering from left to right in the circle of smoke to try and guess where the next attack would come from. Hiccup wiped his hand on his tunic because his sword was starting to slip. And then there was another scream from another reindeer, and again the children whirled around, and again the deer was already dead, this time with both sword wounds to the heart and the head.

"Okay," Snotlout murmured to Hiccup, "we need to evacuate the area. Now."

"How many can Fireworm carry on her back?" Hiccup whispered. "Toothless can carry two."

"I think two’s all she can handle," Snotlout answered.

"Okay. Gastank, Cactus—get on Fireworm’s back. Mutton, Swampwater, go with Toothless."

The four children scrambled on the respective dragons’ backs, and the big beasts wasted no time spreading their wings and soaring over the roaring flames, over the firetrap and getting the four little ones to safety.

Now the remaining Vikings had their work cut out trying to avoid being trampled to death by the hooves of the remaining terrified reindeer. The deer stampeded around the circle, rearing up at the flames and squealing in terror at the black things slinking around.

Silence again, and the remaining children were rigid with fear, peering around, swords ready.

Was it Hiccup’s imagination, or did the flame-circle seem to be shrinking?

By the time Toothless and Fireworm returned, the flames were inching closer, making the circle they were standing in ever so much smaller.

Toothless and Fireworm took four more and flew out, then returned. This time, however, Toothless absolutely refused to leave Hiccup’s side. That was just fine, as they only needed Fireworm to carry the two remaining children—Nutmeg and Bogdown. The flames were so high, they burned taller than a mass of trees; terrible, great towers, flaming all around them in a circle of death so close that Hiccup’s eyes watered and hus cheeks burned as hot as if they were already on fire.

Toothless snarled and wrapped protectively around Hiccup’s legs. He growled hatefully to the right, where a black streak darted.

Voices seemed to coil from the flames—thick, whispery, neither male nor female, neither human or animal, deep and light, breaths and bellows. The voice of some unholy beast, the ruler of the Land of the Dead herself speaking through the fires, the voices of whatever unholy creatures were attacking them.

They were repeating a single word that Hiccup couldn’t understand.

But Toothless did understand it well. And whatever it was, he didn’t like it in the least. He placed one of his massive paws on Hiccup’s foot and roared at the fire. He even shot a purple blast into the flame, and Hiccup heard a tiny squeak of terror disrupt the voices, but they continued on a moment later, louder this time. Toothless snarled and looked ready to fire again, but knew he needed to save his ammo for a later time.

"Come on, Fireworm, come on," muttered Snotlout.

"We can ride Toothless together," Hiccup suggested.

"I’m too heavy," Snotlout pointed out, "for your dragon to carry the both of us. And besides, Fireworm might take that as an insult to her. Come on, you great slug of a reptile, get a move on… Ah, there you are, thank Thor above."

The great Nightmare flew out of the flames up to the scrabbly pinnacle of mountaintop where the Chief and her Master were kneeling. The Chief’s Night Fury was pressed up behind them both, wings open to shield them from the great, rising flames. Fireworm made a mental note to thank Toothless later for keeping her precious Master safe from harm.

Snotlout climbed onto his Nightmare’s back and stroked her snout. Then he waved to Hiccup. “Come on, let’s go!”

"I’ll catch up," Hiccup said. "It’s not wide enough here for both of us to take off at once."

Snotlout surveyed the tiny area and nodded. It was barely large enough for Fireworm to take off, let alone Fireworm and Toothless at the same time. He nodded again and gave Hiccup the Hooligan salute and said, “See you on the other side, Chief.”

Then Fireworm beat her mighty wings and took off.

Hiccup didn’t immediately hop on Toothless’s back. He wanted to—craved it, actually—but he knew he had to do something first.

He peered around the flames and shouted, “My name is Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third, Chief to the Hooligans and only son of Stoick the Vast! This is my village, my home. I don’t like hunting your kind, but I will if you continue to put my people in danger. Get off my island, now, or I’ll throw you off.”

Toothless let out a warning grunt, and pushed Hiccup to the ground with his heavy head.

Hiccup cried out as he fell, and screamed when he felt something sharp scrape his outstretched arm, where Toothless’s neck had been moments ago. He glanced up just in time to see something black jump in the fire and disappear from sight.

Toothless cried out and licked Hiccup’s bleeding forearm, then snarled threateningly at the flames.

Hiccup winced and wiped his bloody arm on his tunic. “Damn,” he muttered. “They’re Exterminators, all right. I’d recognize those claws anywhere.” He pushed himself up and glanced around the fire, in hopes of spotting one of the offending creatures.

The voices were whispering again. This time, Hiccup almost understood the word. It was strange, subtle, like a reflection in the rain.

Yellfatter

Yellfatter

He shook his head when Toothless bellowed and stomped at the flaming circle, growing smaller and smaller. The Exterminator dragons slithered around like panthers through the flames, prowling, hunting them, watching them as a beast watches their prey.

Round and round the shapes circled, closer and closer, growling to each other, still whispering that terrible word.

Yellfatter

One pushed its head through the flames to stare at Hiccup. It was a dragon he’d seen only in books or from a distance, never this close. Yet he recognized it all the same, for the claw marks on his wrist couldn’t be mistaken. He’d seen them on Vikings who’d been in fights with Exterminators and lost. Fire licked from its blood-streaked eyeballs, came smoking from its forehead and crackling out of its nose. Its skin was semi-transparent, so Hiccup could see the weaving black veins bulging around its temples, like thick globs of a spider’s pulsing web. The beast reached a claw through the fire and swished its sword-like nails at Toothless, then retreated into the flames once more.

Hiccup pushed himself up, using Toothless for support, and scrambled onto his back.

The black Exterminator dragons growled indignantly when Hiccup disappeared from their line of sight, but purred pleasantly when they saw him on his back. Hiccup glanced around—there were at least six massive black shapes watching him from the flames, still whispering that freakish word over and over.

Yellfatter. Yellfatter. It coiled off their forked tongues gently, but it didn’t seem to be coming from their mouths. It was as if the wind itself were speaking. Hiccup wondered if he were merely hallucinating the noise due to prolonged exposure to the smoke.

Hiccup undid his cloak and wrapped it around himself. The cloak, surprisingly, was cool and didn’t burn in the fire. Gobber had created it a long time ago, though he never told Hiccup what he and Hiccup’s grandfather, Old Wrinkly, had made it from. It smelled comfortingly of old fish and sea water. Hiccup gasped at the delighted shock of it all. Toothless staggered back and raised his wings protectively as Hiccup coiled the cloak around every inch of him to protect himself from the murdering fire. Then he threw his arms around Toothless’s neck, peering through a single eyehole he’d left so he could still see.

"Let’s get out of here, Toothless," he whispered.

And as the whole of the mountain was consumed with the flames, as the Exterminators kept whispering Yellfatter in that haunting wind-voice of theirs, Toothless spread his wings above them all and flew away with Hiccup on his back.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Stoick the Vast was Hiccup’s father, and the former Chief of the Hooligan Tribe. He was a man built on a strong generation of Vikings, with a belly like a battleship and a beard like an electrocuted animal.

He had been having a peaceful afternoon nap in the surprising warmth of the mid-summer’s day, when he was rudely awoken by a couple of the elder Hooligans chattering on about a fire up in the Wild Zone…and how their Chief and the young Viking children were up there, herding reindeer.

Stoick immediately feared the worst. He wasn’t usually of a fearful nature, but his father-in-law, Old Wrinkly, the village’s not-to-perfect soothsayer, had been going on and on for weeks about some of his omens warning him that Hiccup might be in danger. Stoick had laughed this off, since he wasn’t the type of worry. And Hiccup was older now—already on his twenty-second year of life—and had been the Chief of the Hooligans since his eighteenth year, and so far, nothing utterly terrible had happened. The occasional battle with the Outcasts, the pathetic little arguments with the Bog-Burglars about who won the Viking Tournaments—such petty, little dangers of almost no significance.

But a fire…

"Get water to that fire IMMEDIATELY!" Stoick bellowed, leaping up to his seven-foot-three tall height and charging for the door.

Fortunately, even though Berk had been free of dragon attacks for almost a decade, they kept their Fire Brigade up-to-date. It was something Hiccup had continued, which both Snotlout and Stoick insisted upon, in case any rogue dragons or other Vikings should attack.

It wasn’t immediate, as the fire was across the Isle in the Wild Zone, but the Fire Brigade was there in relatively short time. The dragons who belonged to the warriors specially trained to fight fires were a collection of Nadders, Timberjacks, and especially Water Dragons—tall beasts with thick humps for storing water on their backs. The dragons scooped water from the sea and began shooting it out onto the blaze.

Their efforts were somewhat hopless, however, because it wasn’t a little fire in a single hut, or even a village fire. The entire mountainside was burning, and by the time Stoick arrived, the fire was flaming as strong as ever.

His daughter-in-law is leading the Brigade, shouting orders from the back of her Nadder, Stormfly. Her blond hair was tied back by a thin rope of hide, and her expression was hard. But Stoick saw the lines of worry on her brow, and knew she was thinking of Hiccup too.

Gloomily watching the blaze was a bedraggled line of pupils under Hiccup and Snotlout’s tutelage, blackened and unrecognizable through the smoke. Snotlout stood at the front of the procession on the back of Fireworm, his Monstrous Nightmare. He took his spiked helmet off and shouted something at his pupils—a question, perhaps? The young girl he yelled to—Mutton, if Stoick’s memory hadn’t begun to slip—shook her head solemnly and shrugged her shoulders. Her eyes glittered in the flames, and Stoick noticed something he really wished he hadn’t seen: tears. All the pupils were crying one way or another…

No sign of Hiccup.

"Hiccup?" stammered Stoick, dismounting the back of his own Nightmare—a fearsom, gray thing with yellow eyes—and ran to Snotlout. He jerked his nephew’s wrist painfully and turned him around, taking in the image of the soot and ash on his face, the burned ends of his hair. "WHERE IS HICCUP?"

Snotlout pursed his lips and pointed to the Wild Zone, to the blaze.

"No!" Astrid dug her heels into her Nadder’s side and urged her forward. She took out her own cloak and wrapped it around herself, ready to charge into the flames and find her husband.

None of this was necessary. Out of the fire burst Toothless as fast as he could—nearly flattening two of the Fire Brigade warriors on Nadder-back—and he came to a stop in front of the stunned Vikings. Hasty hands scrabbled at the familiar cloak, unwrapping it with such speed that Hiccup fell off his dragon’s back and into the waiting heather.

He found himself blinking straight up into the anxious faces of his father, Stoick the Vast, and the faces of his amazed pupils.

Behind those heads was the bright blue sky, and farther back was the flames that served as the funeral pyre for a fair amount of reindeer. But not for Hiccup, not this time. As Hiccup tumbled onto his back in exhaustion, noting the tiny sting on the cut left by the Exterminator, he felt Toothless slump to the ground at his side, snorting thankfully and nearly kissing the un-burning land.

"You’re alive!" Stoick yanked his son off the ground and into a bearhug so tight he thought he heard his son’s spine crack.

Hiccup blinked at him, stunned. “I am. I—”

"You asshole!" Hiccup was dragged from his father’s arms and whirled around to face another Viking.

Hiccup smiled nervously at the angry Viking woman standing a bit lower than himself. Despite the height difference, she was more intimidating that he. Her blond hair was bound back, showing off her very beautiful face and her gleaming blue eyes, right now filled with anger. She was in a simple white dress and boots, but she looked better to him than the goddess Freyja. Even so, she was more terrifying than all the dragons in the world—more so than the Exterminators.

And she was his wife.

"Hi, Astrid," Hiccup said, taking a timid step back. "Hi, Astrid. Hi, Astrid. Hi—"

"You dick! Do you have any idea how scared I was?" Astrid kicked him hard in the good knee with her boot. "That was for worrying me!" Then she grabbed him by the shoulder and kissed him fiercely on the lips. "And that’s for coming back."

Hiccup smiled. “I love you, Astrid.”

"Hmph. I love you, too."

"What in Valhalla happened?" Gobber came bounding away from the decreasing fire. It was obvious to Hiccup that he’d been busy smithing before the fire started. He was still wearing his apron and gloves, covered in ash and soot.

Snotlout wiped the grime from his face. He was totally black from head to toe, except for a strip across his eyes and the gleaming spot of his hairline where his horned helmet had been. His hair gleamed in the sunlight and glinting flames of midday like a Valkyrie’s halo. “I can explain,” he said. “We were on a perfectly harmless reindeer herding course, nothing too dangerous about it…and then we were attacked by these—these Exterminator dragons. We almost didn’t make it.”

"Exterminators?" Stoick’s eyebrows shot up. "Are you sure?"

"As sure as the Red Death was real," Snotlout answered solemnly.

"The dragons haven’t attacked for ages—especially not Exterminators. Why would they attack us now?" Astrid asked.

"I don’t know," Hiccup responded. He stroked Toothless’s snout affectionately, and called for one of his students to fetch two of the largest mackrel they could find for Fireworm and Toothless. Swamp was the first to respond, dashing off in search of the tasty treat.

"Don’t worry, son," Stoick said, placing a hand on his son’s frail shoulder. "We’ll take revenge on those beasts…"

Hiccup shook his head. “I don’t want another war.”

Stoick frowned. “But son—”

"No," Hiccup interrupted sharply, glaring into his father’s eyes. "We just put and end to a seven generations’ war, and I’m not going to start another one. There were six Exterminators, Dad—and six isn’t a whole herd. I’m not going to declare war because of the acts of a few rogues. If they attack us at the village, we’ll be ready. Until then, no one is to hunt them. I am your Chief, and you will do as I say. Do you understand me?"

Astrid smiled proudly at her husband. So he’d grown a backbone over these last few years.

Stoick looked equally as proud, if not a little surprised by his son’s ferocity. He bowed his head respectfully. “As you wish, my Chief.”

"Good." Hiccup brushed a lock of ash-covered hair out of his eyes. He sniffed his hair and grimaced. "Ugh—I seriously need a bath. We all do. The fire looks like it’s being handled, so I’ll take the children and get them cleaned up and treated for any wounds. Children, Snotlout—let’s go."

"Yes, sir."

Without another look back at the flames that had nearly taken his life a few moments prior, Hiccup led the children and his cousin to the hot springs behind Berk’s village, realizing just how lucky he was to be alive.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

As he watched his friend lead the children away to clean up, Toothless didn’t know what was worse.

The fact that the day was pretty much ruined; that he’d almost hypnotized Hiccup to save his life; that he’d hurt Hiccup by charging after those stupid Exterminator dragons when they first started circling the group—before they’d rounded up the reindeer; that he hadn’t acted fast enough and got Hiccup and his people caught in an easily avoidable firetrap; that he’d pushed Hiccup into an attack rather than away from it, which resulted in his arm being slashed, no matter how tiny a wound it left behind…

Or that the Exterminator dragons that caused the fire had called Hiccup “Master”.

To Be Continued