There is a small village, nestled in a valley in the Justinian Mountain Range, a day's walk north of Mount Serene. The village has been called many names in the centuries it has existed, it's latest name being Hillside Village, a bit of a joke really, for no outsider who visits the village would think of the mountains around it as hills.
The people who live there haven't changed much from their ancestors, despite the many generations that have passed. They are, for the most part, honest, hard working people, mountain people, sturdy people with good footing and strong lungs. Their farms are grown on the slopes of the surrounding mountains, their livestock raised in perilous pastures. They are a people used to nature's furies, her snowstorms and mudslides, but they are also accustomed to her bounty, for it is a fertile valley, and the surrounding woods are full of game. The people are farmers and hunters, and trades people. They are well removed from the rest of the world, but they hear news at least once a year, for there is a road that winds through the mountains that leads from the portside city of Glaway to Frome, the country's capital. There is always some merchant who travels this road, hoping to reach his destination sooner, and he will always find welcome in Hillside Village.
The village is built around a central square, where they have a lucky fountain that has been there since the town's beginning, some say since the beginning of time. The figure in the idle of the fountain is impossible to make out anymore, from centuries of being rubbed for luck. Some say it is a monkey, others that it a boar, still others are convinced it is a pagan goddess who gives fertility to the land, but all agree that the fountain brings luck.
Around this square is the town – the shops and the inn. The outlying land is dotted with houses, the homes of the farmers and the hunters and the shepherds.
Hillside Village had always been a prosperous, if somewhat backwards, town until quite recently. In recent years the village has been cursed. They are plagued by a monster. A Beast.
They say the Beast lives on the Eastern side of Mount Serene, in a castle hidden by the clouds and the snow. No one knows exactly where – no one dares to find out. Only the maidens who are sent to appease the Beast know where it resides, and they never return to tell the tale. For the Beast demands sacrifice, and twice a year the villagers gather in the square to find out who the next sacrifice will be. The sacrifice is decided by a draw, to be fair to everyone. All the girls names are put in a hat, and the one drawn is taken out of the village the next day and left on Mount Serene to face her fate.
That is how our story starts. With a sacrifice.
In a sense, it started with the first sacrifice, three years before the one we are concerned with in particular. Three years ago the first woman was left on Mount Serene, a girl named Tabitha. For the sake of our story though, we will start with the sacrifice of the girl named Scout.
Scout was the daughter of one of the farming families that lived outside of the town. They hadn't been into town for nearly a month, but everyone in the valley had to be present for the lottery.
It is never a pretty sight, a family forced to give up their daughter, but Scout bore the news bravely. She was a very brave and sensible girl, and she accepted her fate with stoicism, almost suspiciously so. Anyone who knew her better might think she was planning something.
But it's not Scout who is really important to our story, it is Scout's twin brother Hunter.
Of the two of them, he seemed the least likely to be a hero. Hunter never lived up to his name – his father would sometimes joke that they had been unable to tell the children apart as babies, and they had mixed up the names. For Scout was the better hunter of the two; she was the one with all the bravery and cunning and swiftness, all the skill required for hunting beasts. Hunter, though he looked very much like his sister, had none of her talents. He was more inclined to other things, to science and daydreaming and the stars. He was in charge of the small herd the family had, and he spent as much time trying to recover sheep as anything else.
Their mother and father cried, when Scout's name was called, but neither of the children reacted. They were very calm in town, and all the way back to the farmhouse that night. The girl chosen to go to the Beast was given one last night to spend with their families before going to Mount Serene, to say their goodbyes. It said something about their noble nature that not one ever tried to escape in that night. Or perhaps their stupidity.
Scout said her goodbyes quickly and then she went to bed. "I have a big day tomorrow," she said with a devil-may-care smile, and she left the rest of her family in the kitchen.
Hunter looked at his parents. He didn't know how they would manage without Scout. She was the son they never had – she would have been the heir, and the head of the household. He sighed and followed his sister to their room upstairs.
Scout was sitting on her bed, staring out the window at the mountains. She wasn't crying, in fact, she was almost smiling.
"What are you plotting?" Hunter asked as he sat himself on his bed. He knew his sister better than anyone; he knew she wouldn't go to the Beast without a fight.
She turned to her brother with a fierce look in her eye and she said, "I'll kill the Beast, if I can. We can't live like this, always fearing the monster on the mountain. I don't know what I will do Hunter, but I will try."
Hunter thought his sister was very brave – much braver than he could ever be, and when she left the next day he watched her go with less of a heavy heart than he might have. Seeing her grim face as she marched into the mountains with her guard, he expected she just might return with the Beast's head.
It wasn't until a few days later, when his parents started to fall apart that Hunter finally realized the enormity of what had happened. His sister had been sent to her death, and he had watched her go, like the family of all the girls who had gone before. His family didn't work without Scout – he had always known she helped around the house, but it took a few days for him to notice how they fell apart without her.
He determined that night to go after her. He wasn't brave like his sister – he didn't even think of trying to kill the Beast, but he had to try. He had a plan, a tenuous plan at best, but it spurred him on. He would sneak in and get his sister back. If she was still alive that is – but he refused to think of that.
He packed a bag after his parents had gone to bed. He didn't pack much; it was only a day's journey to Mount Serene, so all he needed was food for the journey. He packed enough for the trip back, though he didn't really expect to be coming back. He left a note for his parents on the kitchen table and then he was gone. He wanted to get as far as possible before his parents woke up again.
It wasn't easy hiking in the dark, and by the time the sun rose his shins and palms were bruised from tripping on tree roots. He sat down to rest for a few minutes and to eat breakfast and then continued on his way. He soon reached the base of the mountain, and he looked up at the snow-capped peak with apprehension.
"Might as well get started," he muttered as he shouldered his pack again and started to climb. The lower half of the mountain was covered in forests, so he figured he might as well reach the tree line before lying down for a rest before going to face the Beast, or avoid the Beast as the case may be.
It started to rain around noon, as Hunter's energy reserves were running out. He tried to make himself a shelter, but he'd never had much talent for wood survival skills, and it was a poor shelter he slept under that day. When he woke up again a couple of hours later he was drenched, and chilled to the bone, and he felt as exhausted as ever, but the rain had let up and he kept walking.
He soon warmed up as he climbed the shale up to the mountaintop, and the sun came out from behind the clouds, so his clothes dried a little. As the sun was falling low in the sky he came to the peak of the mountain.
There was nothing there, nothing that he could see. He looked around for a little while and then sat down with a sigh. "Scout, what am I supposed to do now?" he wondered out loud. That was when he noticed the broken branches on a shrub nearby, and a little bit further, freshly upturned earth. He got up to take a closer look, and realized it was a trail, only recently disturbed. "Someone's been here…" he muttered, and he got up with renewed energy. There was only one thing he had taken to in his father's lessons for hunting, and that was following trails. He could spot tracks and follow them easily – he'd always been interested in the natural world almost as much as mechanics, but he didn't have an affinity for the live things, only their leftovers.
He followed the trail down the other side of the mountain, and when it got too dark to see he stopped to light a torch, and he kept going. He didn't have to go far; soon he saw figures in the murk ahead. If this was where the Beast made it's home, then the stories were right – he could barely see through the clouds.
He jogged up to the figure, but when he go close enough to see it he yelped and jumped back, tripping and falling on his backside in surprise. It was a stone figure. He pushed himself to his feet and edged closer to the statue. She looked very familiar, and his eyes widened when he recognized her. Tabitha. He noticed another figure behind her, another of the sacrifices, and then he saw them all – all of the girls who had been sent to the mountain were there, all turned to stone.
"Who are you?" a raspy voice bellowed through the mist. Hunter spun around, wielding his torch in front of him. So much for sneaking around – he should have thought of that before lighting a torch. "Where did you come from?"
Hunter backed up, trying to look all around him at once, trying to find the source of the voice. The mist made it hard to tell what direction it was coming from, and he felt disoriented from exhaustion. He considered throwing the torch away, but then he would be blind. What if the Beast could still see him in the dark? "Stupid!" he muttered to himself, and then he yelled again as he backed up into something. He turned slowly, expecting to come face to face with a terrible Beast, but he had just backed up into another of the statues.
"Scout!" he burst out, seeing his sister in stone, one arm raised as though to attack. He knew it was stupid, but he felt somehow safer, seeing her there, even in that state.
"You know this girl?" asked the voice, and it sounded very close. Hunter spun around again, but there was no one behind him. "Who are you?" it demanded again.
"My name is Hunter!" he called, circling his stone sister. "I'm not here to fight!"
The Beast laughed, a disturbing sound, like tiny claws scuttling across glass. Hunter shuddered, but he didn't run. His knees felt like jelly, and cold sweat was pouring down his back, but somehow he stayed by his sister.
"You don't want to kill the terrible beast?" the voice mocked. "Haven't you come to save these girls, to be a hero?"
Hunter swallowed, though his mouth was dry. "I'm not a hero, and I don't want to die," he said weakly. "I just want my sister back."
The Beast did not respond. For what felt like a very long time, it was silent. Hunter could hear the wind blowing softly, stirring up the loose dirt on the mountaintop. He could hear his heart pounding in his chest, and his own breathing, deafening in his ears, but there was no sign of life other than that. It was terrifying.
"What is your sister's name?" the voice asked again, even closer.
"Scout," Hunter replied. He didn't know why the Beast was toying with him like this – he had expected to be dead long ago. He almost hoped it would end soon, since he didn't see how it could end well, no matter how long he stalled.
The Beast was silent again, and Hunter turned to his sister. He reached out to hold onto the hand she kept down at her side, balled into a fist.
"Go home boy, there's nothing you can do to save your sister," the Beast said. "You're too late."
Hunter's knees gave out on him at that point. He really wasn't made to be a hero. "I can't go home," he said softly. "I can't go back there, not without Scout."
"You're going to have to," the Beast replied coldly. It was silent for another long moment, and then he heard a long slow hiss, a sigh. "You can stay here for the night – I will not harm you if you stay here with your sister – but you must return to your village in the morning."
Hunter waited for it to speak again, but the night was silent. He sat beside his sister and waited, waited for death, or worse, but nothing happened, and he fell asleep.