By Stewart Alasdair MacDonald

The wizard regarded him solemnly, his wrinkled face further creasing with concern as aged armour was buckled into place. The young man adorning himself was beyond concern, though he took a strange comfort in the wizard's regard for his safety. They had spoken little since he had made his choice, but finally, the wizard broke the silence.

"I must ask you again, my young friend, if you truly feel this is the right decision. Your father was a warrior without peer in these hills, and even he could not-"

"Yes, this is the right decision." He replied, cutting short the wizard's words of wisdom. "And considering the alternative, it is the only decision." Normally he would not show such disregard for the advice of the old sage, but it had taken hours of self-assessment, training and inner turmoil to gather the courage to face the Sleeping Hill. Any nay-saying at this point, no matter how well intended, could only be counterproductive. He was not without valour, but one of his flaws was his sensitivity to the opinions of others. Silence was his best friend now. Unfortunately, the wizard would not be so easily dissuaded.

"You have not considered that you may bring the beast's wrath upon the entire village. I have seen it, my child. An army could not contend with it's fury, never mind you alone with not but your father's blade and a few chunks of armour." The wizard's eyes pleaded with him, though his voice remained restrained and commanding.

"It did not descend upon the village after my father's defiance. If I fail, it would be the same result." He turned and faced the mage, hefting his father's short-sword in his hand. The wizard, leaning upon a crystal tipped dragon bone staff, shifted uncomfortably. "I know it's mind, old friend. I have never seen it, but I sense it's desires. It takes pleasure in the fear it wreaks in Dusk, finds joy in our growing horror as the eve of sacrifice approaches. If it destroyed us all, there would be no terror to bathe in. No emotional wounds to drink from on the souls of those whose loved ones it claims."

The wizard raised an eyebrow, and it was difficult for the young warrior to discern his thoughts. "It is a beast; and men do not fully understand the minds of beasts."

"Perhaps not." The aspiring crusader agreed. "It is but a feeling. What knowledge we may lack as men must be compensated for with courage and instinct. As the beast is without rationality, it is also without honour and spirit, and it is with that which it lacks that I will destroy it."

"Oh?" The wizard chuckled. "So honour and spirit, along with that sword, will allow you to waltz into it's cavern and destroy it? In all it's winged, fanged, coiling ferocity?"

"Perhaps not." The young man said softly. "But I will try."

"Then I will accompany you. As with all the others. My duty; my curse." The wizard turned away, his shoulders sagging beneath his navy cloak. "Too many have I watched it take. I pray to Alphus, Medleose and Omegas that you will succeed where your Pere failed."

The young man sheathed his blade and placed a hand upon the aged wizard's hunched shoulder. "As do I sage. For all it has taken, for my Pere, my Mere, though she died of grief and not by the beast's hands, and for Lucephone, who I will not let it take. There will be dawn to Dusk."

"Will there be?" The wizard asked absently, his shoulder tightening beneath his young friend's touch. "Is there ever truly a dawn, and ever truly a dusk? Or is it all the same shade, and only our human minds perceive the difference?"

"Whichever it may be wizard, our job is not to understand, but to believe in the day. For the hope that darkness will eventually be pierced by the shimmering rays of the sun, and it's black nimbus will dissipate in the face of that blinding light."

The wizard turned, awe and pity etched upon his wrinkled face. "I mourn to see you take up the mantle of a warrior so swiftly, when the way of a poet or magister would much better suit your poet's mind."

"There are times when even these men must become warriors. If none take up arms when shadow descends, evil prevails." The young man paused, as surprised as the wizard at his intensity. "Why do you not fight it? Your magical prowess is as unparalleled in these hills as my father's skill as a warrior! Surely there is something that can be done, some spell, some elemental force that will destroy it!?"

The wizard shook his mane of long, graying hair. "Only I can understand it's monstrous thought-speak, if it's malignant mental mewling can even be considered thought. Only I know whom it intends to take as a sacrifice. If I were to oppose it and fail, there would be no hope for Dusk and it's people. Nothing between them and it's rage."

"You will not aid me? You and I have known each other through many harsh years. Surely, if we worked together, we would be more than a match for it?"

"No my son. I can only lead you to the maw of it's cavern. The outcome of the battle is between you and it." The wizard eyed the armoured youth before him. "From stable-boy to would-be hero with the uttering of one name. My how fate unfolds."

The young man smiled sadly. It had been a year since his father had marched with the old man to the dark cave beneath the skull-strewn Sleeping Hill, never to return. He had gone instead of the boy's Mere, refusing to allow her to be sacrificed to the faceless monstrosity that lurked on the edge of their despair-gripped town, Dusk. He remembered his father undertaking the same ritual he had just completed, silently strapping on armour he had not worn in years. He wondered if the same thoughts had run through the grizzled yet proud head of his Pere as the old sorcerer looked on. What would the beast look like? Would he ever return? Would his own skull dot the slopes of the accursed mound? Had the same rancid fear that now writhed in his innards been whirling in the guts of his Pere?

It was difficult to imagine his father afraid, and in his own heart, the fear was dwarfed by his hatred of the unseen beast. Hatred and love for this years golden haired sacrifice : Lucephone. Two emotions polar opposite to each other entwined to create a courage he had never known.

Memories assailed him. Both near and far gone. His father standing in front of him before his final trek, a man of few words saying a stumbling goodbye to his only son. The screams of the beast echoing from the Hill that night, and his racing pulse as his imagination summoned conflicting images of his father's glorious triumph and his hideous defeat. Thoughts and pictures of a time before the Beast had infected their town, when life had been about laughter and hard work. Days spent in joy and content instead of constant fear over who would be claimed next. Working in the fields, riding their horses through the Dusken Hills with his father, hunting with the men and the other boys while the spires and towers of the elven city Zeideroth looked on from the sun-stained Terran horizon.

And Lucephone. The girl he had loved and never known as a man should know the women he loves. Lucephone vibrant and laughing, dancing before the crackling flames of Season Change bonfires. Lucephone signing the songs of Terras's both epic and horrible mythology in her clear and incorruptible voice. And lastly... the sick, plunging sensation in his guts and very soul as the old magician returned from the Sleeping Hill with her name upon his lips.

As his Pere had given his life to save that of his Mere, he would now risk his own for the life of Lucephone.

"I am ready, wizard." He said, dispatching his memories and staring into the multicoloured of the wise and compassionate sage.

"Very well. May this be the last time I make this trek, Gods allowing. Let us pray that Omegas will usher the dead to Worlds Beyond, and bring an end to this horror. That Alphus will bring a new day to Dusk, and that Medleose will bless the life that follows. Now, give them your prayers." The old mage bowed his head and his young protege followed suit, his mind more on Lucephone than the Dragon Gods of Terras. He hated to think of her, preparing now not to fight as he was, but to die defenceless, an innocent sacrifice to the insatiable monstrosity. He asked the Gods for guidance and strength, and the endurance of his new found courage . Finally, he looked up. The wizard was already done his prayers, and was staring out the window absently, where the Sleeping Hill crouched on the horizon, the blood red evening sun seeming to nestle on it's peak.

Without turning, the sorcerer spoke. "Did you pray well, my friend? Did you ask of the Gods everything you will require on this fateful day?"

"I did. Whether or not they will grant it is up to them. I will be content with their decision either way." He made for the door, remembering the times when it had been much larger and he much smaller. "I would like to stop at Lucephone's homestead before we make for the Hill. To put her mind at ease. There is much I need to tell her as well. Things I may not get the chance to say again."

The wizard nodded. "This is to be expected. Do not tarry though; if the sacrifice is late, the beast may come and claim it."

"Don't rush me old man." The young man smiled. A rare moment of humour, surprising himself for the second time.

The magician gave a wane smile. "Time is what rushes you. I merely speak the truth."

They exited the house and began to trudge up the town's single road, the Hill squatting in the distance, seeming to mock them. As they made their way, doors opened, and the few remaining denizens of Dusk began to line the roadway, their heads bowed in prayer for the young man. The only sound was their feet upon the gravel, and the music of the night-bugs, singing their songs. Lucephone's home lay further down the road to the Hill, so thankfully they would not need to go too far out of their way.

They took in the small town in the evening hues : Dusk at dusk. The place had changed little over the passing years. Very few new faces had appeared, and many had faded from his memory, undoubtedly now stripped of flesh and strewn about the Hill. The young warrior's fists clenched as he thought of those who had made this same walk, unarmed and terrified into the lair of the Beast. These people had harmed no one. Simply worked for their families and their village. They did not ask for this plague to descend upin them. They had not the money to leave, nor the will to fight. Those alive were bound by their fear, those dead desecrated and left as trophies. Left to further ingrain fear in the people.

This was something to consider. It's inhuman shrieks indicated primal fury and evil, but the use of it's victim's skulls to line it's abode indicated intelligence no matter how twisted and insane. This would not be a battle of sheer brawn.

Lucephone's home grew as they trudged down Dusk's single road, squatting alongside the gravel like a stalwart dwarf. Candlelight burned in the window, and he was glad. He did not want to wake her from whatever sweet dreams women like her went to when they slept.

The young man turned to the sage, who leaned upon his staff and spoke. "I will wait out here." The old mage said. "Undoubtedly what you wish to depart to the maiden is best kept between you and she."

"I will not be long."

"For the lady's sake, hold true to that." The wizard said, and seated himself upon the grass. His staff lay horizontal in his lap, and his smokey eyes fixed upon the malevolent Hill in the distance.

The aspiring hero nodded and shuffled to the door, his armour grinding together gently. He saw Lucephone's shadow dance upon the wall as he knocked, her silhouette nearly as beautiful as she herself.

"A moment!" Her clear voice rang out, accompanied by the clattering of steel on steel. Her voice did not shake with fear. In fact, there was no fear at all in her voice, though she should be expecting the Wizard of Dusk, come to take her to her death. She opened the door after a few moments, cascading blonde hair framing a beautiful visage that even Medleose would envy. Her forest green eyes held his own, glittering with recognition.

"I wasn't expecting you. How wonderful to see you as!" She looked over his armoured shoulder at the seated wizard. "Him I was." Her eyes swept over his gear and she smiled, melting his heart. "You are equipped for combat. Have you come to challenge me?" She moved aside, and held open the door for him. "I fear I may be too much for you to handle."

"Certainly this is so." He said, and returned her smile as he stepped through the threshold, recalling all the time she had defeated him in the past. His courage, at least. The secret words of love he yearned to depart to her subdued by her presence. "But I do not come to spar. I come to tell you that you will not go to the Hill tonight." She had been rummaging through a pile of armour and weapons upon the table, and she paused as he spoke. "I will go in your stead. and I will slay the Beast of the Sleeping Hill."

She sighed, to his surprise, with disappointment. "You stole the thought from my mind."

"You mean-"

"Yes." She smiled over her shoulder, and whirled. In her hand was a cruel, curved blade, and she swung it in a whistling arc. The clattering of steel. "I intended to do the same. March to the Hill, not as a defenceless sacrifice, but an opponent! Make the damned thing work for it's meal." She studied his gear again, with a more critical eye. "And I still intend to."

"No." He said firmly. "You will not go anywhere near that Hill."

She bristled a this. "I have lost those I loved to the fiend as well! What right do you have to deny me-"

"I forbid it."

"Perhaps we could go tog-"

"No." He said. "I will not lose you too. I will go to avenge my father, and all we have lost to the winged Beast. It's spilled blood will equal the blood of the innocent, and it's screams of agony will drown out the sobs of the tortured living."

"Why you? I have every right to face the Beast myself!" She exploded, pounding a fist upon the table.

"Because I love you." He said quietly. "I have always loved you, and I will not let you die by the claws of the beast."

Her face softened, and then hardened again. "Mighty late is the hour of this revelation."

"I'm sorry. I am a coward. I can face a monster with naught but a short sword, but when it comes to telling the most beautiful woman in Terras that I love her, I quake and shudder like a child afraid of the dark. You defeat me with your presence. Your voice, your face, your eyes, your scent. No words can convey how I love you. Not even the greatest bard could interpret it into words. I cannot breathe when I am near you. I cannot think, I cannot speak. Save for now, when as you said, the hour is late."

She tried to be bitter, but her eyes were soft. "Go then." She whispered. "Be a hero. But if you do not return, nothing will stop me from going myself." He drew close to her, and despite her bitterness she closed her arms around him.

"I will return. And the hour of my revelation will be early instead of late." He whispered in her ear. Their embrace ended, and he gazed upon her for a moment before turning to the door. "Fare thee well, Lucephone."

The wizard stood as he exited the small homestead. The young man nodded, and the wizard returned it. There was no need for words now. There was only one more stop on this adventure: Into the lair of the Beast. Their trek was silent, and as they drew near the Hill, he cast a glance over his shoulder. Lucephone stood on the side of the gravel road, the hem of her white dress billowing in the wind, and her gazed fixed upon him. He raised a hand in farewell, and she returned his salute. Before long they stood at the Hill's gaping maw. A doorway had been burrowed into the Hill's base, undoubtedly by the Beast, and it's frame was lined with the skulls of the dead, as was the Hill's circumference. His father's skull was here, though he did not know where. What he did know, was that Lucephone's skull would not dot this Hill.

"Are you ready my young friend?" The sage asked. "It is not too late to turn back."

"It was too late to turn back as soon as you spoke Lucephone's name to the townspeople."

"Then let us enter, and be done with this."

And they did. The sun had fallen, sinking behind the Hill like a temple into a sinkhole, and the Sleeping Hill's cavern was pitch black. He drew his sword, adrenaline surging. "Beast!" He roared, pointing his blade into the cave's blackened heart. "I come in place of one I will not let you take! If you desire to feast, you will have to earn it!" He looked over his shoulder at the Wizard, of whom only a vague outline was visible. "Bring light to the darkness, my old friend!"

"Very well." The wizard said quietly. He raised a gnarled hand, his pointer finger extended skyward, and an orb of light sparked into existence. The young man turned back bracing himself, and then stopped, his shoulder's sagging with confusion. The cavern was bare. The walls were stone, and numerous runes and etchings coated the granite. It was more of a sepulchre than a cave. A deranged citadel of darkness. There was even an altar, stained with blood. But there was no Beast. He moved to the dias, running his hand along it, wondering if his father's blood was among the maroon crust that had long since dried upon the stone altar. He whirled to face the wizard, mind racing with questions at this anticlimax.

"I do not understand! This place is empty! There is nothing!"

"There is you." The wizard said gravely. "And there is me."

"I don't understand!"

"I begged you, my young comrade. But you would not listen." The wizard began to stride forward, his skin rippling like a pond disturbed by a thrown rock, and the young man understood. Obsidian flames began to rip through tears in the wizard's bubbling flesh, and as he opened his mouth to speak, his teeth became long and pointed. "And now I shall tear your head from your body, rip the flesh from it, and place it upon the slopes of my dominion." He extended his arms, and there was a great rending noise as his flesh tore open, and his outstretched arms became great, leathery brown wings. His scalp also split, tearing down the front of his face and his torso in a vertical seam, and his neck began to elongate. His human flesh burned away, revealing mud-hued skin beneath. As the transformation completed, a crimson gaze leered down at him with inhuman fury.

The creature was limbless, save for his great wingspan, and it's body serpentine and brown. A long, whip-like tail lashed and coiled in the air before him, a cruel stinger adorned to it's tip. It's hideous visage was skeletal, and lacked a bottom jaw. A curtain of fangs descended from beneath it's curled upper lip and as it raised it's head to release a screeching roar, the young man noted a leechesque maw beneath, circular, with small, needle teeth that clenched and unclenched hungrily.

"Come to me, you treacherous snake! There is no fear in me for you to drink!" The young warrior roared, and raised his short-sword in defense. As he shifted his feet and adopted a warrior's stance, a dark voice spoke inside his head. Physically audible was only the Beast's demonic shrieking but as it screamed and writhed, it's words in Human tongue were conveyed telepathically.

"You have blood for me to drink." The creature that had once been his friend stated. "And flesh for me to feast upon."

"You will have to earn your feast monster!"

"Then let us commence." It said, it's thought-voice cold and monotonous, and it lunged. It's whiplike tail curled upward, so that the stinger upon it's end pointed toward the young man's armoured chest. It was possible the armour would stop the strike, but our hero did not want to test this theory, so he pivoted. The creatures stinger burrowed into the stone wall of the sepulchre behind him, and the young man was glad he had not trusted his armour. If unfeeling stone could be pierced, then so could his attire. The creature screamed with fury as it attempted to dislodge it's tail, and the young man tightened both fist's on the hilt of his short-sword. With a furious battle-cry he swung downward in a mighty arc, severing the monster's stinger and the end of it's tail.

The beast shrieked in pain, and what remained of it's tail, a good few broadswords long, wrapped about his sword arm and tugged viciously. His gauntleted appendage was almost torn from his shoulder, and had he not released his blade it surely would have been tugged from it's socket. The sword clattered onto the stone floor and slid to the other side of the cave, now unattainable to the warrior.

"How now?" The cold thought voice asked smugly as the winged beast drew near, the now stingerless tail wrapping about his throat. He struggled to pry free it's grip, to no avail."How now, BROWN COW?!" It's telepathic monotony suddenly a victorious roar. It's head began to descend toward's his own, the leech mouth below it's fangs gaping as it anticipated the taste of his scalp. Spots of light began to appear in his field of vision as the creature strangled him, and he struggled to breathe, staring defiantly up at the Beast that was moment's away from tearing his flesh from his body, like the skin from a clove of garlic. He spat into it's skeletal face, and it chuckled, both mentally and audibly.

Their conjoined shadows, cast by the wizard's light-spell, danced upon the wall, and the great beast's wings pumped as it kept itself airborne over the warrior. The hero closed his eyes as death prepared to close it's hideous mouth about his cranium, when suddenly the sound of steel on stone reverberated through the accursed cavern. Swift footsteps, and the young man's eyes popped open. His vision, however, was blocked by the coiling Beast. The Beast, about to feast, was oblivious to all but the struggling young man in it's grip, and it was not till the sprinting footsteps were directly behind it that it took heed. It's head whirled about, still obscuring his vision, and it screamed with fury. The grip on his throat loosened and he pried free it's grip. He scrambled back against the cavern wall, straining to see beyond the Beast, when a cold, clear, and familiar voice resounded.

"Here's how." Lucephone's said, and as he watched, a blade erupted from the back of the Beast's (Now facing away form him) head. It let out one last scream and crumpled to the ground, the armoured form of Lucephone perched atop it's head, delicate hand upon the grip of the curved blade that now protruded from the creature's skull. It's tail lashed a few times, harmless spasm's of death, and it lay still. She had clambered up it's spined back as it was occupied with the young swordsman, and plunged her blade through it's twisted face.

The young man stood, legs quaking and breath heaving, and staggered toward Lucephone and the Beast's terrible carcass. He collapsed on his knees before her, one hand upon her shoulder, and their foreheads resting together. They stayed that way for a few moments, before he spoke.

"Late was the hour of my revelation. But your intervention was right on time." He said, a smile playing across his features.

"Where is the wizard?" She asked, clasping the back of his neck with her hand.

"Your sword protrudes from his head."

"Snake!" She spat. "Two-faced, hissing-"

"His treachery has been punished." He looked down at the Beast's corpse. "Inferni. Demon's who adopt human form and prey upon the mortal. Good riddance to the fiend." He stood, and offered a hand to Lucephone, who took it and rose to her feet. "Let's go home."

They walked hand in hand from the cave, their shadows tall in the moonlight, and the stars shimmering above them. And though it was night, Dusk finally knew dawn.


Pronunciation Guide

Alphus - Al-fuss

Medleose - Med-lee-ose

Omegas - Oh-Meg-uss

Lucephone - Loo-sef-uh-nee

Zeideroth - Zee-id-urr-oth

Inferni - Inn-Fur-Nee